By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

The Academy Awards is Hollywood's biggest night, and its most secretive.

Over the past 64 years, there have been leaks aplenty from the White House and even from the Pentagon, but nobody from Price Waterhouse LLP has ever leaked the winners of the Oscars.

Don't expect any drips this year, either.

"It adds to the suspense," said Greg Garrison, a 44-year-old senior partner in the Los Angeles office of Price Waterhouse who is in charge of counting the secret ballots. "Nobody knows winners until the envelopes are opened. It is something that is first revealed right on the air."

Actually, there was one slip. It occurred in 1934 when an overzealous publicist prepared a press release in advance of the show, and it was leaked to reporters. That leak led to Price Waterhouse being hired to handle the process the following year.

The Big-Six accounting firm was brought into the awards process, according to Garrison, to "ensure integrity, accuracy and confidentiality" of Oscar balloting. "The toughest part is really making sure that we are 100 percent accurate and the results are 100 percent confidential," said Garrison.

Garrison, head of the accounting firm's entertainment, media and communications group, will be joined at the ceremony this year by Lisa Pierozzi, 36. She is Price Waterhouse's first female partner on the ballot team. This is Garrison's third year in charge of balloting.

Only Garrison and Pierozzi will know who has won Hollywood's most coveted gold statues.

"The toughest part for me," said Pierozzi, "is to be sure everything goes right on the show. Live TV is broadcast with human beings. We want to make sure that nothing we are involved with goes wrong and becomes part of the next day's discussion."

All the tabulations take place in a windowless, interior conference room at the firm's downtown office at 400 S. Hope St. About 10 people, all accountants, are involved in the counting process.

Balloting closes at 5 p.m. on March 17 and counting begins the following day. The tabulation is slated for completion by March 20, three days before the event.

"It is a very secure situation," Garrison said. "There are 24 categories on the ballot and about 5,300 ballots, so it takes time to count everything. Anything that is close is recounted very carefully."

His staff, of course, is cautioned about security. "We impress on everyone the import of what we are doing for the Academy and for the firm," Garrison said. "We take this very seriously."

Computers assist the counters, but Garrison said most of the tabulation is low tech by hand. "It's manually intensive," he said.

Once the votes are in, one of the first steps is to see if there are any problems with the ballots. "There is little room for error, but we still look to see if somebody screwed up," Garrison said.

Among the "screw-ups" that can lead to a vote being disqualified is writing in the name of someone who was not nominated for an Oscar. That would invalidate that particular vote, but not the entire ballot.

One of the most critical elements is cross checking the ballots against the names of eligible voters. "We don't have any ghosts voting," he said.

Another key to the secrecy of the counting process is the way the winners are tabulated. The Price Waterhouse staff is split into teams. Each team calculates a subtotal. Only Garrison and Pierozzi make the final count from these preliminary results. The names of the winners are locked in a safe along with the raw ballots. They remain in the safe until the day of the Oscars.

That means Hollywood's biggest secret remains shut within the walls of Price Waterhouse for 72 hours. On the day of the awards, Garrison and Pierozzi return to the conference room and stuff the name cards of the winners into the envelopes that will be presented at the ceremony. Two sets will be placed in a brown leather briefcase and zippered shut.

Each accountant will take out a set upon arriving at the awards show. Garrison and Pierozzi will also memorize the winners as an additional safeguard. The names of the losers, which also have been typed onto cards, will be returned to the safe to ensure that no one tries to deduce who won through a process of elimination.

To make sure the results get to the Shrine Auditorium without mishap, an off-duty Los Angeles police officer accompanies Garrison and Pierozzi to the ceremony. They will be driven to the awards in a Lincoln Town Car. The armed officer will stay with the two accountants throughout the entire show.

At the awards, Garrison and Pierozzi will stand backstage at opposite ends.

Depending on which side of the stage a presenter will use, either Garrison or Pierozzi will hand the presenter an envelope just before the star walks out to announce the winner from the list of five nominees.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reportedly pays Price Waterhouse about $30,000 annually for the 2,000 to 3,000 hours of work the company does. A company spokesman declined to discuss how much of that time is allocated to the balloting.

"One of the Academy's most valuable assets is the sense that the general movie-going public has of the integrity of the balloting process that leads to our Academy Awards," said Ric Robertson, the Academy's executive administrator. "Price Waterhouse is integral to that integrity and has been for many years."

Garrison said other Big Six accounting firms have approached the Academy about taking over the account, but so far their offers have been rejected. Some competitors reportedly have offered to do the work for free. Some have even offered to pay the Academy, eager for the publicity.

"Accounting is often considered dry, mundane and not very interesting," Garrison laughed. "But on this night it is damn interesting."

And on Oscar night, Garrison and his partner will make a brief on-screen appearance at the beginning of the Oscar telecast to show the world that the list of winners has arrived safely at the Shrine Auditorium. To help them look their best, the two will be getting a designer touch. Calvin Klein, a Price Waterhouse client, is outfitting them.

"It will be basic black," Pierozzi said, "and classic."

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