They know all the secrets, but aren't telling

In a town fueled by rumors and speculation, there is one man in Hollywood who has proved that he can keep a secret.

For the past seven years, Greg Garrison has been one of the two people in the world who has known, days in advance, the Oscar winners. He also knows how close the votes were (what film was runner-up last year to “Gladiator,” and how many votes did it miss by?) He also knows who came in sixth in each nominations race.

So he’s a big mucky-muck.

“Yeah, for about a day,” he shrugs. “I know something that the rest of the world wants to know — for a very short time.”

But he ain’t talkin’. Still, he’ll explain how the balloting works.

With $20 billion in annual revenues, PricewaterhouseCoopers is a firm for auditing, accounting and tax matters. But it’s known throughout the world for one thing: It’s the company that counts the Oscar ballots. PWC uses a method more convoluted than a Masonic ritual, more secretive than a CIA operation.

All the toting up is done by hand. If the tally is close — which to Garrison means within 300 votes — they do a recount. Clearly, if Garrison had been in charge of the presidential election, the counting of ballots in Florida would have been much more efficient.

The day the nomination polls close — this year, it was Feb. 1 — about eight PWC employees immediately begin the tallies. But don’t try to figure out where.

“We do our ballot counting in a secure location that we don’t even identify to our people,” says Garrison. So it’s not in the PWC office? “It’s an undisclosed location.”

Six people each get a portion of the ballots and count those. “We’ve designed it so that only two of us know the winner prior to it being announced on the show. We do that by breaking the ballots into smaller groups. We put them with their backs to the center of the room. They can’t talk to the other ballot counters about subtotals or anything like that.”

It takes several days to tally them, so the ballots stay locked in a safe at night. The subtotals are then aggregated by two people: Garrison, in his seventh year at this, and Rick Rosas, a newcomer to the process.

Garrison (managing partner of PWC’s L.A. office, who’s been with the company for 26 years) sometimes says things like “subtotals are aggregated,” or he’ll drop terms like “tax outsourcing” and “members of the engagement team” (i.e., the staffers who count the ballots). But while he’s fluent in geek speak, he’s hardly the stereotype of an accountant.

Sitting in PWC’s Century City offices, which are decorated with giant stills from such pics as “Some Like It Hot,” “Oliver!” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Garrison is dressed in a navy blue-and-white striped Faconnable shirt, open-necked, with blue sports coat. He laughs a lot. His business card calls him P. Gregory Garrison. But everybody calls him Greg. He’s good looking enough to be an actor, and he could play the sensible father in any sitcom or commercial.

In fact, he probably is a sensible father. He has a teenage daughter “and this is the one time of the year her dad is actually exciting to her.” Doesn’t he ever whisper the secret results to his wife? “She doesn’t even ask any more,” he says with such conviction that you believe him.

After the ballots are in for the final tallies, PWC’s “engagement team” print up cards, each bearing the name of an Oscar nominee. On the Friday before the Oscar show, Garrison and Rosas will stuff the envelopes with the winner. “But sometimes it’s like paying bills, you think, ‘Gee, did I put the right one in the right envelope?'” So sometimes they open the envelope just to make sure. Of course, as it turns out, they never make mistakes.

The envelopes, along with the cards bearing the names of the also-rans, are locked in a safe. Which, of course, is in an undisclosed location. On the afternoon of March 24, the two men will meet and open the safe. They each take a set of the envelopes “and we’ll take separate routes to the theater. During the show, we’ll stay there, one stage right, one stage left.”

They save the ballots and results for five years, in case of a problem. So far, there haven’t been any disputes. No one has demanded a recount.

And what about the engagement team leaking the results?

He seems almost surprised by the question. “You just don’t tell anybody. We know our reputation is on the line. PricewaterhouseCoopers stands for accuracy, confidentiality and zero mistakes.”

Besides, he smiles, “I put the fear of God in them.”

And, no, PricewaterhouseCoopers doesn’t hold an office Oscar pool. “Football, OK, but not Oscars.”

One would think that, when there are close races, strangers or acquaintances might collar him for a hint of the results. “Nobody asks,” he says, innocently. Clearly, he is hanging around with the right people.

And what’s the formula for secrecy? Garrison stares with great seriousness.

“Here’s what I’ve found. The way you keep a secret: You just don’t tell anybody.”

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