OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In 1974, after the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon to resign, Gerald Ford took over the White House and reassured America by declaring:"Our long national nightmare is over."

Last week, the senior management of the Interpublic Group of Companies tried taking a similar tack. In a lengthy conference call with Wall Street analysts and reporters who have been following Interpublic's financial follies since August, John J Dooner Jr, the chief executive, and Sean F Orr, the chief financial officer, asserted in so many words: "Our long corporate nightmare is over."

The executives promised that an exhaustive investigation into accounting irregularities, principally at the European operations of the McCann-Erickson World Group, finally had been completed. They reiterated that the third estimate they made of the damage - requiring a charge to earnings of $181.3 million - would be the last one. They repeated pledges that scrutiny of finances and operations henceforth would be more stringent, pointing to promises to replace the chief financial officer at McCann and put in place a chief operating officer at Interpublic. They echoed statements made previously to reassess the "strategic alternatives" for the problem-plagued, loss-ridden Octagon Motor Sports division. And they offered reminders that many executives at Octagon and other Interpublic shops already had been ousted for poor performance.

So everyone anxious about the fate of Interpublic must now be as happy as the opponents of the monarchy reading about Paul Burrell in the British tabloids, right? Not exactly, to quote a slogan from a campaign created by an Omnicom agency.

For one thing, other statements that Interpublic had made before, about how long the irregularities had taken place without detection, were amended to indicate they had gone on not from 1997 to 2001 but from 1996 to the second quarter of 2002.

Also modified were the explanations of what the charges entailed, to include items that hadn't been discussed previously such as understated liabilities at agencies besides McCann.

There also were monkey wrenches tossed into the works. One was the disclosure of an "informal inquiry" into the earnings restatements by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Though routine in such circumstances, few companies want the SEC poking around the executive suite or into the books, even when a pro-business Republican administration is in office.

A second surprise was an acknowledgement that Interpublic would be unable to meet its earlier target for 2002 earnings of 85 to 90 cents a share. No new figure was forthcoming. And for the first time, Dooner was asked publicly to address speculation in the trade press that he and James Heekin, the chief executive of McCann, aren't getting along. (He denied it.)

So whither Interpublic? (Wither Interpublic? Take your pick.) Madison Avenue is hoping for the best while trying hard not to expect the worst.

Matters may be clarified the next time Interpublic reports earnings, for the fourth quarter and the full year of 2002, likely to take place in mid-February.

That's around the time of the American holiday Presidents' Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Lincoln was the president who warned: "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and Washington was the president who proclaimed: "I cannot tell a lie." Hmmmm. Maybe Interpublic will wait to report its earnings in March.

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