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Two distinctly different Americans with distinctly similar, independent thinking and progressive values passed away last week. The great accounting professor Abraham Briloff (age 96) who relentlessly and brilliantly took apart the failures of his profession to insist on honest and ethical corporate accounting, and Tom Laughlin (age 82), the jolting producer and star of the ‘Billy Jack’ films who broke the Hollywood industry’s rules with sagas of fighting for justice. Although they never knew each other, they both championed fair play and courage to face the grim realities of the day.
It was exhilarating to read Professor Briloff’s (Baruch College in New York City) precise exposés of companies faking their financial conditions in the influential Wall Street publication, Barron’s. He would dissect captured accountants’ sleights of hand and shake company executives and stock prices down from their deceptive, overvalued pedestal. I initially subscribed to Barron’s Financial Weekly because of Briloff’s writings, and later the excoriating articles by the conservative financial analyst, lawyer Ben Stein.
But what most impressed me about Briloff, was that he took his criticism directly to the accounting profession and threw back its own standards and ethical rules against the indentured hypocrisies of compliant accountants.
In his books The Truth About Corporate Accounting and Unaccountable Accounting: Games Accountants Play, Mr. Briloff, who also had an accounting practice, was a lone voice who blew the whistle and stood tall with reform proposals among hundreds of thousands of silent accountants.
All professions have a few courageous challengers of their fellow practitioners who speak the truth of ugly failures, damaging greed and conformity within the ranks. Lawyers, doctors, architects and dentists all have these positive dissidents. But accounting, with its ‘mums the word’ tradition, has the fewest dissenters and standard bearers of all the professions.
Much of corporate financial speculations and the crimes, such as those of Enron and Lehman Brothers, flow from years of phony accounting or what is commonly called ‘cooking the books.’ The sheer complexity of the multi-tiered, multi-corporate transactions, feeding off intricate corporate-lobbied tax laws, provide a camouflage that few people can understand, much less authoritatively expose.
Abraham Briloff was one of those rare individuals.
Abstruse as corporate accounting can be, its consequences, the loss of millions of jobs, huge fleecing of investors and the depletion of pension funds, ending with coerced taxpayer bailouts, are clear.
The Wall Street binge of 2008-2009, that collapsed the economy into the ‘Great Recession’ while continuing to enrich the very rich, illustrates the derelictions of an accounting profession that is paid to cover up misdeeds and then look the other way.
None of this excuses the regulatory agencies or Congress from meeting their responsibilities. But the genesis of these frauds stems from the complicit and corrupt services of accountants and auditors.
About ten years ago, I tried to get some conscientious accounting practitioners and professors to form a public interest accounting group. It almost happened, but the few founders could not raise the necessary sustaining funds for staff and offices. Too bad there weren’t more Briloffs around that table.
Tom Laughlin’s ‘Billy Jack’ character was largely based on the values of Tom Laughlin. Billy Jack is a hell-raising peace advocate and environmentalist, who protects Native Americans and wild horses, and advances justice by standing up to the ruling classes and their henchmen-bullies. The first ‘Billy Jack’ movie in 1969 was distributed by Warner Bros, but Tom Laughlin did not feel that the studio adequately promoted his film. He bought back the distribution rights in 1973 and, with a national advertising campaign, rented 1,200 theaters for a re-release. This move was unheard of in Hollywood. The re-released film grossed $100 million, which would be the equivalent of about $400 million now. The New York Times said, Laughlin’s success “caused Hollywood to rethink its approach to releasing films.”
Laughlin used his sharp way with words to promote his films and a bold style to advance his causes. The trouble was that his imagination was way ahead of his ability to obtain funding. His ‘Billy Jack goes To Washington’ premiered, but was never released theatrically.
Around Presidential election years, he would call me to share his ideas about how to make a popular movie so inspirational that it would propel its leading actor-candidate into the actual presidential primaries and challenge the power structures that Laughlin so intensely wanted to make accountable to “we the people.” His messages were eye-catching and provoking.
It must have been very frustrating for him to not continue what appeared to be a vision of dynamic, gripping real movies about injustices that could motivate viewers to civic and political action for reform.
Unlike many good muckraking documentaries today, Mr. Laughlin and his co-actor, wife Delores Taylor, mixed blood-and-guts fighting with themes of challenging wrongdoing. The Los Angeles Times gave one flavor of the man with a quote from his daughter Teresa: “A student of the martial art hapkido, Laughlin would train feverishly for his films with grandmaster Bong Soo Han, who choreographed the fight scenes and sometimes acted as a double.” They produced raw scripts that, as actors, fit their own real life passion for a just society.
A man of perpetual enthusiasm for the next theatrical breakthrough, however blunt and unnuanced for the film academy’s taste they would be, Tom Laughlin may generate successors in the same vein.
His style was encapsuled in a scene from Billy Jack that has been called “I…Just…Go…Berserk” which has developed a cult-following. (See the clip here).
Our society needs more Abraham Briloffs and Tom Laughlins. To remember them and their works can help make that prospect more likely.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.