By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006
Roger L. Barnes, a former mid-level manager in the controller's office of Fannie Mae, surfaced as a whistle-blower in September 2004 when he was identified by federal regulators as a key figure in uncovering accounting irregularities that ultimately lead to the biggest earnings restatement in history.
Barnes's assertions, though wrapped in the complex language of mortgage income accounting, were simple: Fannie Mae's financial statements could not be trusted, and accounting managers were manipulating the numbers to meet steady, rising earnings targets. He made these claims inside Fannie Mae and believed he was punished for it, retaliation that in effect ruined his career in the public accounting profession.
Barnes's central criticism, two exhaustive investigations have found, was spot on. He had alleged that the company wasn't following accounting rules and was managing earnings, and the subsequent probes backed him up -- including the more-than-2,000-page report issued last week by former senator Warren B. Rudman.
But the document also provides a far more complicated picture of Barnes, his allegations and how Fannie responded to them.
In some cases, where Barnes saw malfeasance, Rudman simply saw reasonable differences of opinion over how to account for Fannie Mae's hundreds of billions of dollars in annual mortgage and other transactions.
Barnes viewed one $6.5 million error, for example, as evidence that Fannie Mae's financial statements were inaccurate, but Rudman agreed with Fannie's interpretation that the mistake was not "material" -- and certainly not important enough to call Fannie Mae's entire accounting system into question. While Barnes interpreted a seemingly illogical set of statistics as evidence of potential accounting fraud, Rudman's report concluded that Fannie's practice of bundling mortgages into pools caused the numbers to be out of whack and were nothing to worry about.
Rudman also gave a nuanced portrait of Barnes's position inside the company. Barnes, a black CPA and MBA who lives in Columbia, is portrayed as prickly and quick to read organizational slights as racism -- e-mailing himself notes about issues such as who got offices and citing instances in which his superiors used material he prepared without crediting him.
Rudman's report also raised doubts about Barnes's claim to have sent an anonymous inter-office memo to Franklin D. Raines, then chief executive, and J. Timothy Howard, then chief financial officer, in 2002 that detailed his concerns about the accounting a full year before he pressed them officially. Rudman could find no evidence that the memo existed.
The document cites Howard and controller Leanne Spencer as "largely responsible" for the accounting problems -- a finding both have rejected through their lawyers -- and concludes there was "no indication" Raines knew that company practices routinely violated accounting standards.
But Rudman also concluded that Barnes's complaints about the company were handled poorly.
According to the report, Barnes, shortly after being passed over for a promotion in July 2003, asked for a confidential meeting with Fannie's internal auditing manager to discuss "analysis and research [Barnes had] been conducting for a number of weeks."
He was quickly ostracized by his peers, who the Rudman report found were deliberately avoiding him to avoid any charge of retaliation. The system set up to evaluate his evidence, meanwhile, was riddled with conflicts and "flawed."
Within three months, Barnes had received a financial settlement and was forced to leave the company, where he had worked since 1991.
The report found the incident part of a culture at Fannie that discouraged the free flow of information and contributed to its problems.
Barnes, in a telephone interview Friday, sharply disputed Rudman's depiction of him.
"I believe the report unfairly gives an image of me that's not accurate, based on the enormous amount of analysis and investigation that I did to prove the company wasn't following accounting principles," he said. "It implies there was a personal, discriminatory bent to my actions instead of an ethical, intellectual one that was based on the facts."
The Rudman report mentions Barnes more than 300 times.
Barnes and his lawyer, Debra Katz, said they could not answer specific questions about his actions at Fannie Mae because Barnes, as part of his settlement, agreed not to discuss the matter with anyone other than federal investigators and Rudman. Katz said that she has asked Fannie Mae to release Barnes from this requirement so he can speak out but that the company has refused.
"We dispute the finding of the Rudman report" as pertains to Barnes, she said. "It's completely counter to the evidence. Rudman's conclusions about Mr. Barnes play into the worst stereotypes of whistle-blowers as disgruntled, difficult employees, when it was Fannie Mae who had the difficulties and not Mr. Barnes."
A Fannie Mae spokesman said the company declined to comment on any specifics in the report because of ongoing investigations of the company and referred questions to Rudman.