The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged national audit firm BDO USA with dismissing red flags and issuing false and misleading unqualified audit opinions about the financial statements of staffing services company General Employment Enterprises.

The SEC, in a statement issued on Wednesday, also charged five of the firm’s partners for their roles in the deficient audits, filing fraud charges against the client company’s then-chairman of the board and majority shareholder Stephen B. Pence, a former U.S. attorney and former lieutenant governor of Kentucky.

BDO agreed to admit wrongdoing, pay disgorgement of its audit fees and interest totaling approximately $600,000, and pay a $1.5 million penalty in addition to complying with undertakings related to its quality controls.  The five partners also agreed to settle the charges against them. Two former CEOs of General Employment agreed to settle separate charges, and litigation efforts continue against Pence.

Near the end of BDO’s 2009 audit of General Employment, BDO was advised by the company that $2.3 million purportedly invested in a 90-day nonrenewable CD wasn’t repaid by the bank upon its maturity date, according to the SEC’s orders instituting settled administrative proceedings against the firm and its partners. BDO also learned that a bank employee indicated there was no record of a CD being purchased from the bank. The $2.3 million represented approximately half of the company’s assets and substantially all of its cash.

BDO then received multiple conflicting stories from company management and board members about the status of the purported CD, and the company received a series of deposits totaling $2.3 million from three entities unaffiliated with the bank. One entity was purportedly owned by Pence.

After BDO raised more questions, the company claimed the deposits were proceeds of an agreement to assign the purported CD to an unrelated party in return for the value of the CD.  But BDO never received reasonable and coherent explanations about why the $2.3 million went missing and why an equivalent amount was later received by the company under suspicious circumstances.

BDO’s engagement partner on the audit Sean Henaghan and concurring reviewer John Rainis subsequently consulted with senior BDO partners including regional technical director James Gerace, national director of accounting Leland Graul, and national SEC practice director Wendy Hambleton. He firm then issued a five-page letter to the company highlighting the conflicting information and demanding an independent investigation overseen by the audit committee.

 Just days later, despite no reasonable explanation from the company, BDO withdrew its demand and subsequently issued unqualified opinions on the financial statements included in General Employment’s 2009 and 2010 annual reports.

Without admitting or denying guilt, Henaghan, Rainis, Gerace, and Graul agreed to be suspended from practicing public company accounting.  Henaghan agreed to pay a $30,000 penalty, Rainis agreed to pay a $15,000 penalty, and Gerace, Graul, and Hambleton each agreed to pay $10,000 penalties.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed against Pence in federal court in Manhattan, he:

Made materially misleading statements and omissions to BDO audit professionals in response to questions about the purported $2.3 million CD and dubious related-party transactions.

Signed the company’s 2009 annual report despite knowing it included misleading statements and omissions about the missing $2.3 million and related-party transactions.

Created the false appearance that he was acting independently in his capacity as the majority shareholder and chairman of General Employment when in fact he was acting as an agent for a convicted felon named Wilbur Anthony Huff, who had funded Pence’s purported acquisition of a majority stake in the company.

Received at least a half-million dollars from Huff in 2009 and 2010 as well as a luxury Cadillac Escalade valued at approximately $50,000.

Huff received a prison sentence in a criminal action related to his involvement in misappropriating the $2.3 million in question from General Employment. The SEC separately charged former General Employment CEOs Ronald Heineman and Salvatore Zizza with making materially misleading statements and omissions to BDO. Without admitting or denying the findings, they consented to SEC orders requiring them to each pay $150,000 penalties.