By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
On the stand, Pollitt had trouble recalling many things about the audits, which were by then five years in the past. Trial transcripts give glimpses of a sometimes confused, upset and defensive witness.
No, she told Beus, she could not remember whether she had seen appraisals of artwork that had been used as collateral on a major loan. No, she did not remember whether she had read critical examinations of United Bank done by federal regulators. No, she could not recall if a lien on a piece of property should have been cause for alarm.
Heated exchanges between lawyers ensued when Beus accused one of Price Waterhouse's attorneys of coaching Pollitt while she was on the stand.
To Pollitt, it was a distasteful and enraging experience. "It was just totally absurd that he started on me," Pollitt says. "I think he did it to show off. I just didn't enjoy him, whatsoever. He, to me, was kind of the slimy-type attorney. I guess I was naive going in thinking that all attorneys are honest."
Pollitt, whose husband is one year away from finishing law school at Arizona State University, had never been involved in a trial before, much less a witness in a gargantuan civil suit between warring corporations.
But there she found herself, being hectored by high-priced attorneys looking for a scapegoat.
Pollitt was not working anymore for Price Waterhouse at the time of the trial. In early 1991, she had left to become controller for the Mega Foods grocery store chain.
For weeks the trial overwhelmed her life. Between testifying, trying to do her new job and preparing for the next day's questioning, she was regularly putting in 12- to 16-hour days.
Across the dining-room table of a Scottsdale house where she, her husband and two dogs live, Pollitt recalls the experience with a touch of Southern defiance. She considers questions carefully, but answers with determination.
She does not appear to be seeking sympathy and is, in fact, reluctant to talk about the case.
Her reluctance, she says, stems from an exasperated belief that she was wrongly dragged into the whole affair to begin with. Other accountants will understand that she did nothing wrong, she says. As for the general public, and the jury for that matter, she'd just as soon they forget about it.
The case has not affected her career, she says, and she is not concerned so much about professional fallout as she is with publicity she does not want.
"It got very tough," she says of the trial. "For me, testifying was for the principle of the thing. I didn't work for Price Waterhouse [at the time of the trial]. I didn't owe them anything. I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't think Price Waterhouse did anything wrong. So when I first went there, it was really for the principle of the thing."
Naively, she admits, she expected to answer questions truthfully and go about her business, drawing little notice. Instead, she says with bitterness, she learned that trials do not follow neat expectations the way accounting does. She became a sitting target as the first person from Price Waterhouse to take the stand.
"He [Beus] was going to ask me questions, I was going to answer and the jury was going to make a decision," she says. "I was naive in thinking that. It was a performance and there were games played. He wanted to push me around."
During and after her testimony, Pollitt says, she could not believe what was happening. The failure of a business deal between the state's fourth largest bank and a foreign multinational firm was being laid on the shoulders of an insignificant outside accountant.
"I knew myself that it didn't rest on my shoulders, the outcome of the audit or the outcome of the trial," she says.
John Binkly, a partner at Coopers and Lybrand, a Big Six firm hired by Price Waterhouse to go back and review the audit team's work, testified that Pollitt and the firm had done their jobs properly.
Pollitt's reputation was not the only one attacked at trial. Almquist, the partner overseeing the audit, also came under fire for not adequately supervising Pollitt and the other fieldworkers.
He, too, bristles at the mud thrown his way. "Yes, I'm offended," says Almquist, who retired from Price Waterhouse after 32 years for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit and is now business manager of the Heard Museum. "Not only the reputation of Price Waterhouse, but my personal reputation, which is something that I value very highly, has been challenged."
Almquist says he had no doubts at the time that the United audits were properly performed, and nothing that came out at trial changed his mind. But to six of the eight jurors who decided to award Standard Chartered its record verdict, Price Waterhouse did err, and Pollitt seemed to be a key part of the reason.
Juror Betty Swigart, who voted for the record award, said she was convinced that Pollitt and Almquist were largely at fault for not detecting the imminent problems with United's loans. "Price Waterhouse didn't do its job," says the 65-year-old retiree from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Laurie Pollitt had only two days of training to audit a bank. She was more or less the leading person doing the audit. Her supervisors should have followed through more and seen what was going on with some of these multimillion-dollar loans."