Oversight board proposes plan to make accountants more accountable

October 11, 2011

When big accounting firms issue letters vouching for the financial statements of the companies they audit, the documents bear the signature of the accounting firm, as if a faceless entity picked up a pen and scribbled its endorsement.

Now, a plan to make accountants more accountable would require audit firms to disclose the names of the partners who head each audit.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), which writes audit rules for publicly traded companies, issued the proposal Tuesday. Officials said the change could prompt individual auditors to approach their work with a deeper sense of personal responsibility.

The oversight board is giving the public until Jan. 9 to comment before it takes a final vote.

Auditors are supposed to be watchdogs for shareholders, but from Enron and WorldCom to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, they have often been criticized for not barking. They are hired and paid by the companies they audit, and policymakers have struggled for decades to strengthen incentives for them to stand up to corporate management when appropriate.

The oversight board backed off of an idea it floated in 2009 to require the individual audit leaders to sign the annual certifications filed publicly with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Audit firms objected that such a requirement would make it easier for investors to sue their partners.

In a statement Tuesday, oversight board chairman James R. Doty said that in other countries the names of the lead auditors are already disclosed.

“Why are shareholders in France Telecom to be favored over shareholders in AT&T?” Doty asked.

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