Enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission against accountants have tapered off the past few years, according to a new analysis by Cornerstone Research.
The SEC finalized a total of 40 enforcement actions against accountants in 2017, with 27 of those targeting certified public accountants employed at SEC registrants and 13 targeting auditors at audit firms. Of the actions against auditors, 12 involved issuer auditors and only one an auditor of a broker-dealer.
That number declined from 2016, when the SEC finalized 51 actions against accountants and 2015 when the SEC issued 55 enforcement orders involving accountants. In 2016, more than half of the actions, or 26, targeted external auditors rather than CPAs at registrants.
Before the peak in 2015, the SEC delivered 36 enforcement actions to accountants in 2014 and 35 in 2013. In 2012, the total number of actions reached only 16, and only three of those named external auditors.
At the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, enforcement actions also jumped in 2015, where the board finalized a total of 33 actions, two thirds involving auditors of issuers and one-third targeting auditors of broker-dealers. The total fell to 28 in 2016 and then jumped even higher to 35 actions in 2017, the analysis shows. Before the 2015 spike, the PCAOB finalized only 14 actions in 2014, 11 in 2013, and nine in 2012.
Elaine Harwood, vice president and head of the accounting practice at Cornerstone Research, said there are likely many factors that led to increased enforcement actions at both the SEC and the PCAOB. “The increase is consistent with the SEC’s ‘broken windows’ enforcement approach under former Chair Mary Jo White,” she said. “The current leadership of the SEC has suggested an end to that approach, which may be one of the factors contributing to the decline in finalized SEC actions in 2017.”
The PCAOB has been pitching Congress for years to open the board’s enforcement activity to greater transparency. Sarbanes-Oxley requires the PCAOB’s enforcement process to be conducted behind a veil of privacy until actions are finalized. Advocates for greater transparency say that privacy provisions has incentivized individuals and firms to litigate actions to the full extent possible so as to delay their revelation.
The majority of SEC and PCAOB enforcement actions finalized from 2012 to 2016 led to additional disciplinary measures by state boards of accountancy, which license accountants in each state. Cornerstone says six states hold 60 percent of the licenses for accountants who faced SEC or PCAOB actions, with New York and California holding the highest and second-highest numbers. The report says accountants who are employed by SEC registrants are less likely to face a state action than those employed by accounting or auditing firms.