Scott London Subverted Sarbanes-Oxley: Big Four Mock Audit Partner Rotation

Scott London Subverted Sarbanes-Oxley: Big Four Mock Audit Partner Rotation

The earth rotates around the sun. Galaxy Doppler shifts are almost always redshifts. The further away the galaxy the faster it is receding.

I'm learning a lot in my first class, Cosmology, in the University of Chicago Masters in Liberal Arts Program. The universe has order. There's synchronicity and "smoothness" to where it is and how it came to be that scientists have a hard time explaining.

Such laws rarely seem to apply very well to human nature. Where did earthbound humans part ways with the natural world?

I wrote today in Forbes about a small little thing I noticed in one of the first stories about Scott London. As I tried to research and write about it, I waited for someone else to pick up on it. (No one else did.) I've been busy the last couple of weeks since the KPMG press release about Scott London's breach of client confidentiality hit the wires on April 8 but I researched the issue and called KPMG and Skechers and waited.

There's one small detail that came out early, mentioned in The Financial Times by Kara Scannell and Dan McCrum when they interviewed Skecher's CFO David Weinberg, that matters a lot to the current debate in the U.S. and U.K regarding audit firm rotation and the compromise rules for lead partner rotation on audit engagements.

Mr. London had worked on Skechers' audits in seven or eight of the last 13 years, said Mr Weinberg, returning after a five-year rotation away two or three years ago. He said that he had worked with him regularly, and never had questions about his work or integrity: "not even the slightest", he said.

The rest of the column goes on to explain that London seems to have subverted the intent of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 203 that requires lead engagement partner rotation off engagements to promote objectivity, independence and professional skepticism. But he's not alone. The more I looked into this the more I realized it's probably pretty common in the firms. After ten plus years of Sarbanes-Oxley, we've probably got quite a few of these roll off, roll back on partners out there. An early draft of a paper by four academics, including former PCAOB academic fellow Brian Daughtery, says almost everyone does it.

Assignments for the lead engagement partner, concurring partner, and other senior members of the audit team are planned well in advance of required rotation so members are not rotated simultaneously. Some firms have policies that specify the qualifications of the partner assigned to client engagements. Depending on the engagement, regional or national office approval may be required on partner assignments. One OMP indicated firm policy does not allow a partner to be a concurring partner before being a lead partner. Another indicated his international firm now has a policy that does not allow partners to ever return to a former public client unless the national office agrees to make an exception based on extenuating circumstances.

An important element of mitigating the negative aspects of rotation is ensuring partners are properly trained. One OMP noted the path to partnership is now approximately 13-15 years, primarily driven by the complexity of GAAP. Another noted many senior managers rotate to larger practice offices or the national office for training before standing for partnership.

But...

By the time the Daugherty/Dickins/Hatfield/Higgs paper was published in 2012, Brian Daugherty told me that none of the Big Four audit firms prohibited a partner from returning to a former public client as lead engagement partner. None, that he became aware of during the research, prohibit the audit partner from acting as an advisory/consulting partner before, after, or during the cooling off period as lead audit engagement partner or as concurring/quality partner. One firm that did forbid partners to return to a lead audit engagement partner role after a rotation off, except on an exception basis, dropped the prohibition before the paper was published.

Despite being very open and chatty with the press about the London incident - looks like KPMG fed a positive story to the WSJ about all they are doing to review internal policies - KPMG did not want to give me exact dates of London's assignments on Skechers and what he did during his roll-off.  Neither did Skecher's CFO.

Did London act as concurring or quality review partner during those five years? Even worse, did London act as Advisory partner, responsible for increasing non-audit tax and consulting fees at Skechers like Deloitte's Tom Flanagan did at the Fortune 500 clients he traded illegally on?

Skechers spent $351,000 for "All Other" services with KPMG between 2003 and 2008. Given the Sarbanes-Oxley prohibitions against an auditor providing services other than tax and "audit related" this seems odd. The explanation?  "These are fees for other permissible work performed by KPMG LLP that does not meet the other category descriptions." Translated, that means, "We don't think we have to explain it you."

Skechers paid KPMG an awful lot, too, for tax services compared to its audit fee, $4, 512,000 over the ten year period 2002-2011, or 34% of total audit fees for the same period of $13,129,000. In 2004, Skechers paid KPMG approximately $680,000 for acquisition due diligence services, categorized as "audit related" when due diligence services are prohibited consulting services by an auditor unless they're tax-related.

There's more at Forbes, KPMG's Inside Trader: What The Auditor, and Skechers, Don't Want To Talk About. You might be asking, though, how can we as investors know if the Big Four are complying with the audit partner rotation law?  Who checks to see that they are following any of these laws Congress makes that are supposed to make us believe that auditors are back on the job, looking out for shareholders after Enron?

We can't.

If an audit firm violates the rule, we'll probably find out about it only if something worse happens that causes that information to be disclosed. The audit firms know which partners are assigned to clients, audit and non-audit. They have to know to manage their business as well as insure compliance in case that audit is selected for inspection. Public companies and their Audit Committees know who is assigned to their engagements. Rarely do the firms and their clients volunteer information about tenure on engagement unless there's a lawsuit, or if feelings are hurt such as in the Skecher's case. The Skecher CFO's disclosures to the FT about Scott London's tenure on the engagement are unusual since there's been no lawsuit.

Yet.

Read this article in its entirety at the re: The Auditors, a blog by Francine McKenna.

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