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Ph.D., CPA
Robins School of Business
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA 23173
pclikema@richmond.edu
(804)287-6575
May 2003
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The Greatest Frauds of the (Last) Century
An editorial in the Journal of Accountancy stated:
Like a torrent of cold water the wave of publicity raised by the . . . case has
shocked the accountancy profession into breathlessness. Accustomed to relative
obscurity in the public prints, accountants have been startled to find their
procedures, their principles, and their professional standards the subject of
sensational and generally unsympathetic headlines.
If you guessed the editorial was referring to Enron, WorldCom, or one of the other recent
accounting scandals, you would be off by more than sixty years. The preceding paragraph was
published in February 1939 in the wake of the infamous accounting fraud at McKesson &
Robbins, Inc. Unknown to the company’s auditors, fictitious inventories and accounts
receivable comprised more than 20 percent of McKesson & Robbins’ purported assets as of
December 31, 1937.
Seven years earlier, an even more outrageous fraud had been discovered at the
international conglomerate, Kreuger & Toll, Inc. Investigators discovered that nearly $250
million of the company’s reported assets had never existed.
While it is much too early to call Enron and WorldCom the greatest accounting scandals
of the 21st century, there is little doubt that Kreuger & Toll and McKesson & Robbins were the
two most notorious, and influential, frauds of the 20th century. Investors’ complaints about
losses from the Kreuger & Toll fraud built political support for passage of the U.S. securities acts
in 1933 and 1934 and the subsequent requirement of mandatory audits for public companies.
Within months of the discovery of the McKesson & Robbins fraud, a special committee of the
American Institute of [Certified Public] Accountants recommended significant changes to
procedures for appointing auditors and conducting audit tests. The reforms that followed these
two frauds shaped the accounting profession for the next seventy years.
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Kreuger & Toll
The mastermind of the Kreuger & Toll fraud was a Swedish engineer named Ivar
Kreuger. Kreuger’s picture adorned the cover of the October 29, 1929 issue of Time magazine.
The accompanying article described how his company, Kreuger &Toll, controlled approximately
75 percent of the European and American match market. During the 1920s, Kreuger & Toll
loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to cash-starved European governments to help them
rebuild their war-torn economies. Kreuger & Toll’s loans helped western European countries
avoid the fate of Czarist Russia and earned Kreuger the nickname “Savior of Europe.” During
the late 1920s Kreuger was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ivar Kreuger assumed control of his family’s three small match factories in 1913. A few
years later, Kreuger came up with a bold plan to control the world’s supply of matches. After the
First World War, many European countries were desperate for funds to rebuild their economies.
Kreuger & Toll offered loans of up to $125 million to governments in return for receiving the
exclusive right to sell matches within the countries’ borders. Prices were set by contract and the
loans were repaid through an excise tax on matches. This strategy enabled Kreuger & Toll to
obtain absolute monopolies in fifteen countries and dominate the match market in nineteen
others.
To raise the hundreds of millions of dollars he needed to lend to the European
governments, Kreuger organized an American subsidiary and began selling stocks and bonds to
U.S. investors. Kreuger & Toll attracted investors by paying dividends of up to 20 percent
annually. Even with 75 percent of the European match market, Kreuger & Toll did not earn
enough profit to support such generous dividends especially when several countries began
defaulting on their loan payments. What began as a seemingly ingenious plan to dominate the
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world match market eventually deteriorated into an enormous “pyramid” or “Ponzi” scheme.
Dividends were paid out of capital, and proceeds of subsequent loans and bond issuances were
used to repay initial investors. Kreuger & Toll became dependent on continually obtaining funds
from new investors and lenders so it could pay its ever growing obligations.
The Kreuger & Toll fraud, which worked so spectacularly during the “roaring” 1920s,
collapsed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Illiquid banks and unemployed investors
stopped buying new shares of Kreuger & Toll securities. Without new investment dollars
flowing into the company, Kreuger simply ran out of cash to pay his company’s dividends and
repay its loans.
Rather than suffer the disgrace of being exposed as a failure and swindler, Ivar Kreuger
shot himself through the heart on March 12, 1932. Newspapers reported Kreuger’s suicide as a
tragedy—one more “victim” of the Great Depression. It was not until a month after Kreuger’s
death that auditors discovered the magnitude of his fraud and the reason for his suicide.
The Kreuger & Toll fraud, discovered in the spring of 1932, helped build political
support for passage of the U.S. securities acts in 1933 and 1934. These two acts required
companies to publish audited financial statements before selling securities to the public and
established the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to oversee corporate financial
reporting. Although Congress debated creating a corps of government auditors to audit public
companies’ financial statements, it finally decided to grant the public accounting profession
responsibility for ensuring the reliability of financial reporting.
McKesson & Robbins
The mastermind of the McKesson & Robbins fraud was Philip Musica. Although born to
poor Italian immigrants and raised in poverty, Musica became a nationally recognized leader in
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business and politics. At the height of his popularity, in 1937, a delegation of prominent
Republicans urged Musica (who was then using the alias F. Donald Coster) to seek their party’s
nomination to run for U.S. President.
Musica’s criminal career began early. By his 30th birthday, he had been convicted of
fraud twice. The first conviction was for avoiding import tariffs by bribing customs officials to
record incoming shipments at a fraction of their true weight. The second conviction was for
using forged invoices to obtain large bank loans.
In 1919, after adopting the name Frank D. Costa to conceal his criminal record, Musica
founded the Adelphi Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Company. Adelphi manufactured high
alcohol-content products such as hair tonic and cosmetics. Adelphi’s best customers were
bootleggers who bought huge quantities of the company’s products and distilled out the alcohol
to make booze.
In 1925, using the assumed name of F. Donald Coster, M.D., Ph.D., Musica used his
bootlegging profits to buy McKesson & Robbins, a ninety-year-old company that sold milk of
magnesia, cough syrup, and quinine. During the next twelve years, Musica/Coster built a
pharmaceutical distribution network that rivaled national chains such as Liggett, Rexall, and
Walgreen.
To inflate McKesson & Robbins’ reported assets while skimming cash into his own
pocket, Musica enlisted the help of his three younger brothers. One brother, using the alias
George Vernard, was placed in charge of a fictitious sales agency—W.W. Smith & Co. The
W.W. Smith office was actually a “letter-writing plant” containing seven typewriters, each with a
distinct typeface and a unique supply of stationery. Musica/Vernard’s role was to write purchase
orders bearing the names of fictitious companies and mail them to McKesson & Robbins.
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Another Musica brother, using the alias Robert Dietrich, was placed in charged of
McKesson & Robbins’ shipping department. This brother would forge shipping documents to
make it appear that inventory had been delivered by McKesson & Robbins to legitimate
customers. The fourth Musica brother, using the alias George Dietrich, was appointed
McKesson & Robbins’ assistant treasurer. This brother would transfer money between
numerous company bank accounts to create the appearance of cash payments for purchases and
cash receipts from customers. For each sale, McKesson & Robbins paid W.W. Smith & Co. a
commission of .75 percent. The four Musica brothers divided the Smith commissions among
themselves with Philip, the oldest brother and mastermind, getting the largest share.
The McKesson & Robbins fraud was not discovered until late 1938 when the company’s
treasurer, Julian Thompson, became suspicious of the large payments McKesson & Robbins was
making to W.W. Smith & Co. Thompson obtained copies of the Dunn & Bradstreet (D&B)
credit reports that had been used to satisfy McKesson’s auditors of W.W. Smith’s viability.
When he showed the credit reports to a D&B representative, he learned that D&B had never
heard of W.W. Smith & Co. and that the credit reports in his possession were forgeries.
On December 6, 1938 the SEC opened an investigation into McKesson & Robbins’
accounting and the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading of the company’s shares. One
week later, federal agents arrested Coster, fingerprinted him, and released him on bond. The
next day, investigators discovered from his fingerprints that respected businessman F. Donald
Coster M.D., Ph.D. was really twice-convicted fraudster Philip Musica. They ordered
Musica/Coster taken into custody, but like Ivar Kreuger before him, Musica put a gun to his head
and took his own life.
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The McKesson & Robbins fraud led to significant changes in procedures for appointing
auditors and conducting audits. After four months of hearings, during which forty-six witnesses
produced 3,000 pages of testimony, the SEC recommended that non-officer members of the
client’s board nominate the auditors and that auditors be elected by and address their report to the
shareholders. In the summer of 1939, the American Institute of [Certified Public] Accountants
appointed its first standing committee on auditing procedures. The committee’s first standard,
Statements on Auditing Procedure No. 1, “Extensions of Auditing Procedure,” made observing
inventory and confirming accounts receivable—two procedures that would have helped detect
the McKesson & Robbins fraud—standard audit procedures.
Conclusion
The 1939 Journal of Accountancy editorial concluded:
We feel that in the long run this publicity will not be entirely harmful to the
profession. On no other occasion has there been as much public discussion about
accounting simultaneously in all parts of the country. The importance of
independent audits and of accounting procedure will not be forgotten. We predict
that in the future auditors will encounter less resistance to examinations of wider
scope and less effort to place limitations on their work than in the past.
While this might have sounded like wishful thinking during the depths of the McKesson
& Robbins scandal, the subsequent sixty years were a time of unprecedented prosperity for
accountants. The two scandals prompted reforms that helped, rather than hurt, the profession.
Requirements for mandatory audits that followed the Kreuger & Toll fraud increased the market
for accountants’ services. Changes in audit procedures that followed the McKesson & Robbins
fraud improved audit quality.
The reforms being enacted now in response to the Enron and WorldCom scandals have
similar potential to help the accounting profession. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s requirement for
auditors to attest to the adequacy of their clients’ internal accounting controls will provide
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millions of dollars of additional revenues to accounting firms. The increased use of forensic
auditing procedures during audits should discourage or catch more frauds and reduce the
frequency of lawsuits against accounting firms. With luck, accounting students sixty years from
now will remember the scandals of the 2000s as painful, but constructive, events in the history of
the profession.