The Securities and Exchange Commission has taken disciplinary action against more than 50 accountants in 2005 and 2006 for misconduct in scandals big and small. But few have paid a dime to compensate shareholders for their varying levels of neglect or complicity.
It also turns out that nearly half of them continue to hold valid state licenses to hang out their shingles as certified public accountants, based on an examination of public records by The Associated Press.
So while the SEC has forbidden these CPAs from preparing, auditing or reviewing financial statements for a public company, they remain free to perform those very same services for private companies and other organizations that may be unaware of their professional misdeeds.
Some would say the accounting profession has taken its fair share of lumps, particularly with the abrupt annihilation of Arthur Andersen LLP and the jobs of thousands of auditors who had nothing to do with the firm’s Enron Corp. account. Meantime, the big auditing firms are paying hundreds of millions of dollars in damages — without admitting or denying wrongdoing — to settle assorted charges of professional malpractice.
Individual penance is another matter, however, and here the accountants aren’t being held so accountable.
Part of the trouble is that there doesn’t appear to be an established system of communication by which the SEC automatically notifies state accounting regulators of federal disciplinary actions. In several instances, state accounting boards were unaware a licensee had been disciplined by the SEC until it was brought to their attention in the preparation of this report. The SEC said it has a general practice of referring disciplinary actions to the state boards.
Another obstacle may be that some state boards do not have ample resources to tackle the sudden swell of financial scandals. It’s not as if, for example, the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy had ever before dealt with an accounting fraud as vast as that perpetrated at Houston-based Enron.
“We don’t have the staff on board to manage the extra workload that the profession has been confronted with over the last few years,” said William Treacy, executive director of the Texas board. “So we contracted with the attorney general’s office to provide extra prosecutorial power.”
Treacy said his office is usually notified of SEC actions concerning Texas-licensed CPAs, but the process isn’t automatic.
With other states, communications from the SEC appear less certain. If nothing else, many boards rely upon license renewals to learn about SEC actions, but that only works if the applicants respond truthfully to questions about whether they’ve been disciplined by any federal or state agency. A spokeswoman for Georgia’s board said one CPA recently disciplined by the SEC had renewed his license online without disclosing it.
Ransom Jones, CPA-Investigator for the Mississippi State Board of Public Accountancy, said most of his leads come from other accountants, media reports and annual registrations.
“The SEC doesn’t necessarily notify the board,” said Jones, whose agency revoked the licenses of key players in the scandal at Mississippi-based WorldCom.
Some state boards appear more vigilant than others in policing their membership. The boards in California and Ohio have punished most of their licensees who have been disciplined by the SEC since the start of 2005.
New York regulators haven’t yet penalized any locals targeted by the SEC in that timeframe, though they have taken action against two disciplined by the SEC’s new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. It is conceivable that cases are underway but not yet disclosed, or that some individuals have been cleared despite the SEC’s findings. A spokesman for the New York State Education Department said all SEC referrals are probed, but not all forms of misconduct are punishable under local statute. New rules now under consideration would strengthen those disciplinary powers, he said.
Meanwhile, although the SEC deserves credit for de-penciling those CPAs who’ve breached their duties as gatekeepers of financial integrity, barely any of those individuals have been asked to make amends financially.
No doubt, except for those elevated to CEO or CFO, most accountants are not paid as handsomely as the corporate elite. That said, partners from top accounting firms are were paid well enough to cough up more than the SEC has sought, which in most cases has been zero.
Earlier this year, in what the SEC crowed about as a landmark settlement, three partners for KPMG LLP agreed to pay a combined $400,000 in fines regarding a $1.2 billion fraud at Xerox Corp. One of those fined still holds his license in New York.
“The SEC has never sought serious money from errant CPAs,” said David Nolte of Fulcrum Financial Inquiry LLP. “Unfortunately, the small fines in the Xerox case set a record of the amount paid, so everyone else has also gotten off easy.”
It’s not that the CPAs found culpable in scandals don’t deserve a right to redemption, or just to earn a living. Most of the bans against practicing before the SEC are temporary, spanning anywhere from a year to 10 years.
But the presumed deterrent of SEC action is weakened if federal and state regulators don’t work together on a consistent message so bad actors don’t get a free pass at the local level.