Going Concern reported yesterday that KPMG professionals have been ordered to preserve all correspondence and documentation related to the tax “loaned staff” assignment it has with long-time client GE. That means someone – the SEC or PCAOB – is investigating.
You may remember earlier this year when The New York Times broke a little story about General Electric’s tax savvyways and the best tax law firm the universe had ever seen (aka the GE tax department).
The report caused more than a few people to get bent out of shape because the Times said GE was enjoying $14.2 billion in profit while “claim[ing] a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.” What that “benefit” really entailed was a mystery but many people jumped to the conclusion that it was a “refund” andProPublica (possibly a little peeved that they got scooped) tried to set the record straight on the Times story.
Despite all the back and forth, everyone was pissed at GE. The company lost aTwitter joust with Henry Blodget and then a bogus press release went out claiming the company was returning the “refund” of $3.2 billion and the Associated Press ran it. Slightly awkward.
The latest twist comes from a tip we received earlier about a “Preservation Notice” sent to all KPMG employees yesterday from the firm’s Office of General Counsel (“OGC”).
URGENT TARGETED PRESERVATION NOTICE: GENERAL ELECTRIC’S LOAN STAFF ARRANGEMENTS
Please be advised that until further notice from KPMG LLP’s (KPMG or firm) Office of General Counsel (OGC), you are hereby directed to take all steps necessary to preserve and protect any and all documents created or received from January 1, 2008 through the date of this Notice relating or referring to the loaning, assignment or secondment of tax or other professionals to General Electric Company and its direct and indirect subsidiaries, affiliates and divisions (collectively “General Electric’s Loan Staff Arrangements”).
Last March, I wrote the story that highlighted this arrangement. The preservation notice refers to tax and “other loaned staff arrangements” so there may be more like this at GE.
Based on my reading of the rules, loaning, assigning, or seconding tax or any “bookkeeping” staff is not allowed for the auditor. What’s worse is that KPMG had been sanctioned recently for a similar issue in Australia. I guess they thought the SEC/PCAOB would never go after them in the U.S. and never for trying to “please” such a high-profile client.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 started out tough on tax. The rules regarding prohibited activities by the auditor, intended to preserve their independence, scared the living daylights out of the largest firms. It appeared initially that the SEC would prohibit the tax side of the firms from providing highly lucrative tax advice to their audit clients. Many of those professionals started planning an exit from their firms so they could continue working with long time clients.
A compromise was reached. The result is one of the loosest and most generous exceptions to auditor independence rules on the books.
The Commission reiterates its long-standing position that an accounting firm can provide tax services to its audit clients without impairing the firm’s independence. Accordingly, accountants may continue to provide tax services such as tax compliance, tax planning, and tax advice to audit clients, subject to the normal audit committee pre-approval requirements under 2-01(c)(7).
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 also prohibits an auditor from providing “bookkeeping” services to its audit clients.
The rules utilize the previous definition of bookkeeping or other services, which focuses on the provision of services involving: (1) maintaining or preparing the audit client’s accounting records, (2) preparing financial statements that are filed with the Commission or the information that forms the basis of financial statements filed with the Commission, or (3) preparing or originating source data underlying the audit client’s financial statements. Our experience with this definition demonstrates that the concept of bookkeeping and other services is well understood in practice.
In defiance of these provisions, KPMG – GE’s auditor – provides “loaned staff” or staff augmentation to GE’s tax department each year. These “temps” perform tasks that would be otherwise the responsibility of GE staff. Sources tell me KPMG employees working in GE tax have GE email addresses, are supervised by GE managers – there is no KPMG manager or partner on premises – and have access to GE employee facilities. They use GE computers because the software required for their tasks is GE proprietary software.
This type of “secondment” to an audit client is never allowed. KPMG should know better. KPMG was recently sanctioned by the SEC for a similar transgression involving their Australian office.
KPMG Australia and at least one other KPMG member firm outside Australia seconded non-tax professional staff to work at each client’s premises, under the supervision and direction of each client, doing the same types of work that each client’s own employees or managers ordinarily would perform, in violation of the prohibition under Rule 201(c)(4)(vi) against “[a]cting, temporarily or permanently, as a director, officer, or employee of an audit client, or performing any decision-making, supervisory, or ongoing monitoring function for the audit client.”
KPMG earns approximately 10% of their total fee from GE for tax services not connected to the audit directly or indirectly. GE’s policies state that these engagements, if for more than $1 million dollars, must be pre-approved by the GE Audit Committee. However, these services should never have been provided at all per SEC independence rules -rules that pre-date Sarbanes-Oxley.
KPMG is well known for supporting, as an auditor, aggressive tax strategies. Recent controversy over long-time audit client Citigroup’s use of deferred tax assets to pump up its profits is one example. KPMG also once flew too close to the flame as a tax shelter provider. Its advice to private clients on how to pay less to the IRS almost got the firm taken out of the game completely.
So why, for a measly $8-10 million a year, is KPMG playing with fire in providing these low value, low margin, low status services to GE? It may be that KPMG wants to hold on to the relationship at any cost.
Read the rest of my original story at Forbes.
Read the rest of the Going Concern story here.