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Accounting for Errant Auditors

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 14th, 2007

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought charges against 69 accountants for failing to register with the Public Company Accounting Board (PCAB) earlier this week. This somewhat obscure action is the latest ripple in the wave of crackdowns that followed the Enron accounting scandals in 2001 -- to break up the all too cozy relationship between auditors and the multinationals that they are supposed to be policing.

Governments allow companies to close their financial books at the end of the fiscal year, if a qualified accountant has signed off on it. The problem is that both the companies and the auditors are private entities whose ultimate motive is to make a profit, so there is potential for one or both of the two not to report any cooking of the books, unless they know that a regulator might catch them and discipline them. And in the last two decades, as favored accountants have been rewarded with multi-million dollar non auditing consulting gigs (such as tax planning or management consulting), the worry was that they were looking the other way in order to win more business.

Following the Enron scandal, which showed that Arthur Andersen, the company's auditor, had failed in its public duty, the U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley law in 2002 that replaced the accounting industry's own regulators with the Public Company Accounting Board with subpoena and disciplinary powers. Auditors are supposed to register with the board, but clearly not everyone took this seriously.

The SEC's enforcement director, Linda Chatman Thomsen, said that Thursday's action showed that the agency "is committed to ensuring compliance with the regulatory framework Congress established for auditors of public companies." A total of 50 of the errant accountants settled the charges with the federal agency the very same day.

This action is an important warning shot across the bows to let the auditors know that the SEC is checking up on them. But the jury is still out as to whether the SEC will go one step further and prosecute auditors who fail to report companies that are cooking their books.

In related news, a new study from the University of Nebraska suggests the whistle-blowers who report violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to agencies like the PCAB are not properly protected. The study looked at 700 cases where employees experienced retaliation from companies for whistle-blowing and found that a mere 3.6 per cent of cases were won by employees.

Richard Moberly, the study's author, argues the findings "challenge the hope of scholars and whistle-blower advocates that Sarbanes-Oxley's legal boundaries and burden of proof would often result in favourable outcomes for whistle-blowers."

The Financial Times reports that Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit organization that lobbies for whistle-blowers, calls the law "a disaster." Jason Zuckerman, a lawyer at the Employment Law Group, a law firm that represents Sarbanes-Oxley whistle-blowers, says: "Part of the problem is that investigators misunderstand the relevant legal standards and believe that a complainant must have a smoking gun -- that is, unequivocal evidence proving retaliation."

The debate is still on over whether Sarbanes-Oxley is effective five years after the law was passed, although all appear to agree it was a step in the right direction. The proof of the pudding, they say, will be in the eating, so we eagerly await the day that SEC puts errant accountants behind bars.