KPMG Knowledge of PCAOB Inspections: A Good Business Decision or Violation of Ethics?

Editorial Note: We are delighted to publish this “opinion piece” by Dr. Steven Mintz, a frequent contributor to our social media blog. As always, when you read his contribution, we ask that you keep in mind that the opinions expressed therein are those of the author. They do not represent the position of the AAA or of any other party.

With this piece, we are launching our “Contributing Columnist” series at AAAPublicInterest.org. It is adapted from a 2018 article that appears in the CPA Journal.

We thank the New York State Society of CPAs, the publisher of The CPA Journal, for permission to publish this essay. Richard Kravitz, the Editor-In-Chief of the Journal, will join Dr. Mintz as session panelists during the AAA’s upcoming 2018 Ethics Symposium.

Recent revelations that KPMG had help in its quest to prepare for audits from the PCAOB
raises the question whether it was a good business decision to hire a former PCAOB staffer to help it determine the target of audit inspections by the PCAOB or an unethical act. I would say while it may have seemed to be a good business decision at the time, KPMG’s actions to gain access to possible PCAOB inspections was unethical because it violates the public trust. The key ethical issue is intent. The intent of KPMG was to “cheat the system” by gaining an unfair advantage. In this regard it reminds me of the Volkswagen defeat device case.

Why did KPMG do it? It is because their audit deficiency rate was the highest of all the Big Four firms. The average audit deficiency rate for the Big Four since the inception of the inspection process has ranged between 30-to-40 percent. The rate for Big-4 firms has gotten as low as 21 percent (Deloitte) and gone as high as 54 percent (KPMG). In the case of KPMG, it was determined that the firm too often failed to gather enough supporting evidence before signing off on a company’s financial statements and internal controls.

Let’s look at the indictment against KPMG’s partners. After being hired by KPMG, Brian Sweet, the former PCAOB staffer, was asked by three KPMG partners, knowing his background with the PCAOB, whether there were any plans to inspect a client of theirs. Reluctant at first to respond, David Middendorf, KPMG’s former national managing partner for audit quality and professional practice, is said to have later told Sweet to “remember where [his] paycheck came from” and “to be loyal to KPMG.” Sweet was asked about the plans again a few days later, this time by Thomas Whittle, former national partner-in-charge of inspections, who implied that his position within the firm was not secure. Sweet showed Whittle the inspection list later that day. The audit partners used this information to analyze and review audit workpapers relevant to the inspection and suggested revisions to avoid possible findings of deficiencies by the PCAOB.

A CPA’s loyalty should be to the public, not the firm. Otherwise, the public cannot trust that CPAs and their firms will act in the public interest, not those of the client or the firm.

There is an issue to consider with respect to quality controls. Quality controls relate not only to audit engagements but ethics as well. One such example is independence. Firms have quality controls to ensure their staff are independent of clients. I also believe quality controls should extend to integrity issues. KPMG’s actions lack integrity because they were unprincipled and violate the public trust. I believe KPMG’s actions border on being an act discreditable to the profession. Just imagine if all firms acted this way. The audit inspections would be relatively useless because the ethical rule that the audits selected by the PCAOB should not be known in advance by the inspected firm would be compromised.

I’m also troubled by the contingent fee issue. KPMG hired Palantir, the data analytics firm, to help it predict which of its engagements would be inspected and agreed to pay it $250,000, contingent on a certain rate of success. While contingent fees are acceptable in non-audit engagements, with certain exceptions related to tax practice, it is not unreasonable to evaluate the arrangement from a broader lens. Again, it smacks of being an act discreditable to the profession. It has elements of insider trading, in my view.

Another ethical issue is fairness. If we consider that all the other firms, including the non-Big-Four, may not have access to former PCAOB-staffers, or may have a higher ethical standard than KPMG, those firms are not being given the same opportunity to know in advance which audits might be inspected by the PCAOB. Simply stated, they are not playing on a level playing field because KPMG had a competitive advantage, albeit one based on improper actions. The result could have been that other firms wound up with a higher deficiency rate than KPMG because of its advantage and the steps it took to capitalize on it.

At the end of the day, KPMG’s actions should lead to a state board of accountancy investigation whether the firm violated its ethical commitment to standards of professional behavior and protecting the public interest.

Dr. Steven Mintz is a Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. You are welcome to visit him at StevenMintzEthics.com.