Report: Whistleblowers could help expose auditing fraud at publicly traded companies

Whistleblowers would be protected and rewarded for exposing accounting misdeeds under a bill scheduled for a vote in the House this week. The bill would attach a whistleblower protection provision to rules governing the the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) – often referred to as “Peekaboo.”

The PCAOB, according to the panels’website, “oversees the audits of public companies and SEC-registered brokers and dealers in order to protect investors and further the public interest in the preparation of informative, accurate, and independent audit reports.”

But, according to a recent investigation by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), it’s doing a terrible job. Could better protections for whistleblowers get the effort back on track? One of the recommendations in the POGO report notes that “whistleblowers could help make enforcement of the audit firm industry easier and more effective.”

The PCAOB was set up to monitor accountants and prevent the kind of fraud and financial collapses that have destroyed consumer savings, brought down huge companies and gutted the economy. From the story:

But, in key respects it’s been doing a feeble job.

Over its entire history of more than 16 years, when it comes to some of the biggest firms under its jurisdiction, it has taken disciplinary action over only a tiny fraction of the apparent violations its staff has identified. Meanwhile, the financial penalties it has imposed pale into insignificance compared to the fines it apparently could have imposed.

The Peekaboo doesn’t directly police Wall Street or corporate America. Rather, it polices the accounting firms that are responsible for auditing corporations.

It’s a watchdog over other watchdogs.

And when it comes to disciplining the biggest American dogs in the pack—the U.S. arms of Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, known as the “Big Four”—it’s proven feckless.

The investigation looked at 16 years of PCAOB records. Since 2003, the panel’s inspection reports have cited 808 instances in which the U.S. Big Four performed audits that were so defective, the audit firms should not have vouched for company’s financial statements.

Out of those reports only 18 enforcement cases emerged, POGO reports.

If the 808 audits cited as fatally flawed in the inspection reports were as bad as the reports said, it appears that the audit cop could have fined the audit firms more than $1.6 billion—that’s billion, with a “b.”

Yet, since it began working the beat, the audit cop has fined the U.S. Big Four a total of just $6.5 million, POGO found. That’s million, with an “m.”

The report calls for great transparency, better access to PCAOB records and whistleblower protections.

From the report:

To better oversee the industry, the board should incentivize whistleblowers to come forward when they suspect violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, PCAOB rules, and other laws, rules, and professional standards governing the audits of public companies, brokers, and dealers. Whistleblowers should receive a reward if their report results in a PCAOB enforcement action. Whistleblowers are a critical tool in the fight against waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption. These individuals keep a watchful eye on the government and industry. Whistleblowers could help make enforcement of the audit firm industry easier and more effective. The board should protect from retaliation workers who make protected disclosures, deter efforts to discourage people from coming forward, and provide resources so workers know the right way to bring information to light. Such a program could be modeled on the whistleblower offices at the SEC and the Internal Revenue Service, which are both authorized by Congress to provide monetary awards to individuals who come forward with information that leads to enforcement actions. Congress has a long history of financially rewarding whistleblowers—dating back to the False Claims Act in 1863, when Congress was concerned that suppliers were ripping off the Union Army during the Civil War.


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