Owens Corning is in a distinct minority among large American corporations: It has in place a well-established records retention program. Actually, the title is a bit of a misnomer since, as with most corporate records retention programs, the main objective of this records management system is to eliminate records as quickly as financially and legally possible. At Owens Corning, in fact, there was a regular series of records burnings–shreddings being considered insufficiently permanent. Perhaps, however, even burning was not enough. Why? Because decades-old internal notes and memos from high-ranking company officers managed to survive and have proved pivotal in a decision by the leading maker of fiberglass insulation materials to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after it was hit with $3.1 billion worth of liability suits by 450,000 asbestos victims. The plaintiffs–some of whom have already settled with the company–claimed Owens Corning knowingly used a dangerous component in its fire-resistant products, and the internal memoranda, which showed that even during the 1940s and 1950s company executives knew that asbestos was an extremely hazardous material, provided the smoking gun needed to support the charge.

Needless to say, records–both old paper documents and modern electronic files–have figured prominently in the news of late. In last year's Microsoft Corp. antitrust case, e-mail messages obtained by the government suggested top management at the software giant was deliberately trying to snuff the competition. Texaco Inc. executives were caught on tapes recorded in 1994 discussing whether to destroy records they feared might prove incriminating in a federal lawsuit charging the company with discriminating against its minority employees. On the same tape, executives also referred to African American workers as "black jelly beans." And of course, there were the cigarette industry meeting notes outlining the collusion to hide evidence of the carcinogenic nature of smoking.

Enron Files

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