What is in this article?:
Even after a Darien, Connecticut, priest was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million in donations from his parish, few church officials could have imagined the possibility of Connecticut lawmakers introducing a bill to remove control of parish finances from Roman Catholic bishops.
Nevertheless, when Bill 1098 was introduced into the Connecticut General Assembly last March, the diocese of Bridgeport was ready for battle. Back in 2006, having sensed the outrage of his flock over the brazen theft, Bishop William E. Lori had appointed a special finances task force (composed of three priests and three lay members) to define the finance best practices that would help the pastors of 87 parishes elevate their financial controls. As each task force member's resume was rich in finance experience, they formed an impressive financial round table.
However, no one's portfolio could match the singular credentials of task force member Philip Ameen, a 58-year-old layperson who for the past 12 years had served as principal accountant and comptroller for the General Electric Company -- a role that required the churchgoer to signoff on the company's financial statements, which in 2006 tracked the whereabouts of $163 billion in revenue.
Little known to his fellow task force members, Ameen was then engaged in the biggest battle of his professional career -- one that pitted the U.S. government against General Electric. It was a battle not dissimilar to the one that Bishop Lori would soon enter -- at least, perhaps, from the point of view of Ameen, an executive known to keep a cautious eye on the reach of government.
In the end, the Catholic Church would declare a decisive victory when Connecticut lawmakers beat a hasty retreat (the bill was withdrawn). As for General Electric, the final chapter remains a little fuzzy. This past August, GE agreed to pay $50 million to settle a suit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which said that the company had repeatedly used accounting tricks to pump up its earnings early in this decade.
"The SEC complaint against General Electric is an X-rated complaint -- don't show it to the children. What GE did is that bad!" says Walter Schuetze, who served during the first Bush administration as chief accountant for the SEC and who has known Ameen since the late 1970s, when the two men worked from the NYC offices of Peat Marwick (Now KPMG). "I hope that GE's X-rated movie will be the final chapter on earnings management," Schuetze adds, evoking the accounting treatment that in relation to GE has until recently been acknowledged by a wink rather than the spoken word.
Just exactly what the SEC settlement has brought an end to, however, remains a matter for debate. For its part, GE agreed to pay the fine without admitting to or denying the SEC allegations. Perhaps, if nothing else, the investigation helped to bring an end to Ameen's career.
Or did it?
While The Wall Street Journal reported that the SEC investigation helped to contribute to Ameen's 2008 retirement, GE spokespeople have denied that one had anything to do with the other. And then there's the ever outspoken Ameen himself.
"I suspect that you haven't heard the last of me yet," he recently said when asked whether his retirement was likely to keep him on the sidelines when it comes to his career -- not as GE's comptroller, but in the realm of accounting standards-setting.
"I'm really interested in the transition to international standards. It is the mecca that we all have been seeking, and I'd like to contribute to that in one way or another," said Ameen, who did just that last April when he responded to an SEC request for comments on its Proposed Road Map for the adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Having doggedly applied his name to hundreds of letters designed to alternately block and clear the path for accounting standards, Ameen's April comment letter is distinctive in light of the fact that it is not authored by Philip Ameen, the comptroller of America's most admired company, but rather Philip Ameen, the private citizen. (Ameen's replacement, current GE comptroller Jamie S. Miller, had filed her own comment letter with the SEC eight days earlier.)
While SEC enforcers may like to take credit for displacing GE's comptroller, it would not come as a surprise to many who know him if Ameen views things the other way around. Says Ameen: "The financial world is no longer just the U.S., and it's going to be a major adjustment, in my view, for the SEC to find a role other than the final authority role, and I think that how that finally adjusts is going to be very interesting to watch."