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A top insurance company as the new Enron?

An accounting probe at AIG worries Wall Street, and involves some of America's richest men.

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American business is facing yet another major scandal involving more accounting shenanigans.

But, this scandal has the potential to cause tsunami-sized damage: It involves a highly respected insurance company, American International Group (AIG) - which is part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average - which has now admitted to $1.7 billion in improper accounting. And, it has enveloped some legends in the financial arena: Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, forced out as chairman of AIG, and Warren Buffet, the Omaha stock market guru, who will be questioned about his possible involvement.

Because AIG is so massive and important to the financial world, regulators will have to tread carefully. The company's main business is providing reinsurance, that is, it insures insurance companies. This helps the industry to spread its risk among many large and financially sound companies so a single event does not become a financial disaster for one company.

Also, because of AIG's huge size, lawyers don't think the government will bring a criminal charge against the company as it did for Arthur Andersen, Enron's accountant. The criminal charge was a death sentence for the accountant.

"There is an increased reluctance to bring criminal charges that ultimately have the effect of killing a company that otherwise employs a lot of innocent people and has lots of value to it," says Michael Gass, an expert on SEC enforcement at Palmer & Dodge, a Boston law firm. "Instead, there is an increased focus on the individuals responsible."

Past lessons

If the past is any indication of the future, the government will work its way up the food chain at the company. A host of executives, including the chief financial officer, have already resigned or been forced out. The government will try to pressure them to provide evidence against higher officials, particularly Mr. Greenberg.

"I would be shocked if nothing criminal comes out of this," says Mr. Gass. "The concept that there is a $1.7 billion fraud on the stock holders and not a criminal action is ridiculous."

Global investigation

The investigation is likely to also expand overseas. AIG has operations offshore, particularly in Bermuda where it has used a company to provide financial rewards for its executives. "It's common for insurance companies to use offshore companies and not be public about it," says Gass. "There is nothing illegal about it unless there is misuse."

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