HealthSouth never was big on second opinions.

The giant health care chain -- now fighting for survival -- preferred to take care of itself. New evidence indicates that HealthSouth doctored its own numbers and then reassured others that its accounting treatments were proper. Trained professionals trusted HealthSouth's judgment. But critics blast those experts, including independent auditors at Ernst & Young, for ignoring dangerous warning signs that are now being uncovered in a virtual autopsy of the ailing company.

"The financial collapse of HealthSouth, and the allegations of fraud within the company over many years, raises serious concerns about the auditing practices of HealthSouth's internal and outside auditors," said W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R., La.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a letter to E&Y's chairman. "We are interested in learning ... why Ernst & Young apparently did not uncover any accounting fraud at HealthSouth."

HealthSouth has been accused of fabricating earnings from its earliest days as a publicly traded company. So far, nearly a dozen company executives -- including every person who ever served as CFO -- have confessed to participating in a multibillion-dollar accounting scam that ranks as one of the biggest, and perhaps the most blatant, in corporate history. Government investigators and prosecutors ultimately hope to nail Richard Scrushy, HealthSouth's founder and ousted CEO, as the alleged mastermind behind the financial scheme.

Scrushy, who faces no criminal charges yet, has insisted that HealthSouth finance executives carried out the accounting scam without his knowledge. But mounting evidence, including taped conversations and other correspondence, indicates that Scrushy had plenty of input into the company's financial business.

In new excerpts from a tape-recorded conversation with former CFO William T. Owens -- the first whistleblower at HealthSouth -- Scrushy specifically warns against taking a big write-off just before the accounting scandal blew up. He instead suggests that HealthSouth find a better way to overcome its bad investment in Source Medical, another Alabama company partially owned by HealthSouth executives. By this time, HealthSouth was already reeling from a big Medicare hit -- now viewed as partially bogus -- and questionable insider sales by the CEO. Scrushy emphasized that Wall Street would not tolerate another unpleasant surprise.

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