The Washington Post

Watchdogs caught nuzzling and wagging tails; auditor sales pitches exposed

Auditors of public companies are supposed to be independent watchdogs. It’s their job to scrutinize the accounting and make sure investors are getting reliable information.

But some audit firms adopt a solicitous posture toward the companies they are responsible for overseeing.

In the text of a speech for delivery Monday to the Council of Institutional Investors, the nation’s top audit cop pulled back the curtain on the way some audit firms market their services.

“The mortgaging of audit objectivity can even begin at the outset of the relationship, with the pitch to get the client,” said James R. Doty, chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

Without identifying the auditors involved, Doty shared some illustrations culled from oversight board inspections of audit firms:

* “Simply stated we want management to view us as a trusted partner that can assist with the resolution of issues and structuring of transactions.”

*We will “support the desired outcome where the audit team may be confronted with an issue that merits consultation with our National Office.”

*Our audit decisions are “made by the global engagement partner with no second guessing or National Office reversals.”

*We will deliver a “reduced footprint in the organization, lessening audit fatigue.”

With respect to that last point, Doty commented, “What is ‘audit fatigue’? Does accommodating it add value to investors? How should investors feel about a ‘reduced footprint?’ ”

Since taking the helm of the oversight board this year, Doty has been building a case that auditing needs an overhaul. His speech Monday shed further light on how he views the issue.

“The value of the audit to investors derives from the auditor’s objectivity, not the value-added benefit to management,” Doty said Monday. “Management may prefer a less objective audit that accommodates management’s short-term self interest. But in such cases, deference to management increases cost to investors and, ultimately, the company.”



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