In the spring of 2008, finance executives from Caterpillar Inc. gathered for a few days of meetings in the Peoria Civic Center, a few blocks from company headquarters. Early in the proceedings, Eugene Fife, chairman of the audit committee, reminded the attendees that they cradled Caterpillar’s reputation in their hands.
It would take just one or two wayward stewards to wreak havoc, Fife said, even at a company as mighty as Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of bulldozers and other construction equipment. Anyone aware of financial malfeasance or trickery was obliged to report it immediately. Later, then-Chief Executive Officer Jim Owens pressed the point, saying he slept well because he couldn’t imagine Caterpillar experiencing the sorts of ethical lapses that had doomed Enron Corp. and other companies.
Listening with dismay was Daniel Schlicksup, an accountant who’d been with Caterpillar for 16 years. He’d been telling his bosses that the company was engaged in an overseas tax arrangement that, by his reckoning, had helped it illegally avoid more than $1 billion in taxes. Now, as Owens spoke, Schlicksup concluded that no one had passed his warnings to the CEO. “I thought to myself, ‘Jim, it’s happening here,’ ” Schlicksup later said in sworn testimony. “ ‘You just don’t know it.’ ”
He walked back to Caterpillar’s offices a