Yesterday, The Financial Times asked me to comment on the Enron anniversary. Last week, it was the Houston Chronicle. So Arthur Andersen’s demise is ten years behind us. Today, I re-post one of my first, from October 13, 2006, which presents my thoughts from that time. As I re-read it today, how little has truly changed…
Many might think that with the demise of Arthur Andersen, the regulators and the public have gotten rid of the baddest apples in the bunch. Much has been written about whether Enron was an anomaly or whether there was something more institutionally perverse that had to be stopped. Andersen alumni felt vindicated and cheated when the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of the firm. Why then did it have to fail?
Well, there was more to the story and, of course, it did not end with the end of Andersen as a firm. There were many other times Andersen was called on the carpet by the SEC or sued by shareholders for bad audits.
In April of 2001, Arizona state officials and securities regulators jointly filed a lawsuit against Arthur Andersen LLP, alleging that the auditor willingly participated with a religious foundation in an investment fraud. The state sued the accounting firm over what it contended was Arthur Andersen’s involvement in an alleged cover-up of a securities fraud by the Baptist Foundation of Arizona.
“Any time senior management conspires to defraud investors, this kind of complicated fraud will be very difficult to detect,” the paper quoted Ed Novak, an outside attorney for Arthur Andersen at that time. (That’s a quote you’ll keep hearing from the remaining firms even today…)
In May 2001, Andersen also paid $110 million to Sunbeam shareholders to settle lawsuits stemming from its inflated earnings statements. Both Sunbeam and Waste Management restated their earnings after admitting fraud in their financial statements.
In April of 2002, AA announced that it was backing out of a $217 million settlement with victims of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona’s 1999 collapse. However, as the trial started a new agreement was reached to settle the case, when Andersen Worldwide, the company’s global organization, agreed to provide enough additional capital to enable the insurer to pay the $217 million originally agreed to.
In June of 2001, AA agreed to pay $7 million to settle the Waste Managment case. The Securities and Exchange Commission said that Arthur Andersen LLP’s audits of Waste Management Inc.’s financial statements were false and misleading. It was the largest civil penalty ever assessed against a Big Five accounting firm at that time.
In April 2005, Arthur Andersen LLP, the final defendant in the WorldCom securities class action, agreed to settle. Andersen will pay at least $65 million in cash and those funds have already been transferred to an escrow account. In addition, the class will receive 20 percent of any distribution to any of Andersen’s 1,700 partners from any funds remaining when all other claims are settled.
But the remaining Big 4 audit firms also have their share of outstanding and settled suits for improper audits and other claims. And in all cases, the remaining firms either bought, merged, or absorbed Arthur Andersen partners, staff and their clients all over the world. Where it seemed that former Andersen clients may have gotten new auditors and a fresh look, there may have been only more of the same, just operating under a new name.
The US Chamber of Commerce has warned recently that the auditing profession is “on the edge of disaster” if regulators, business and auditors do not tackle the enormous litigation liabilities faced by the “big four” firms.
This warning reflects concern over the possibility that one of them – PwC, Deloitte, KPMG or Ernst & Young – could collapse if multi-million dollar lawsuits brought for alleged negligence bring a firm’s partnership to its knees. Claims against auditors began to increase in number and size in the 1990s, particularly in the US.