The PCAOB has had a pretty good run of late. It all started with the SCOTUS handing them a loss that was really a win and the Board has, most recently, gotten ambitious with new risk assessment standards. What’s more is the call of acting Chair Dan Goelzer to have the Board’s enforcement inspections held publicly so audit firms can’t get all mysterio about what they did and did not do to warrant said inspection.
Well, the run of luck appears to have come to an end as the SEC issued a new rule that takes effect next month that marginalizes the Board to the benefit of the accounting firms it oversees (our emphasis).
Going into effect September 7, the rule explains how accounting firms can dispute the PCAOB’s findings during its inspection process. The firms have always had this ability under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, but the SEC lacked a formal appeals process. (Indeed, the June 28 Supreme Court decision, which affirmed the constitutionality of the PCAOB, arose out of a small accounting firm’s dissatisfaction with its 2004 inspection report.)
A key feature of the process is secrecy. If an accounting firm appeals to the SEC, the PCAOB will be prohibited from making disputed portions of its inspection report public until the commission completes its review, which could take anywhere from 30 days to over 100 days. Moreover, the SEC could decide to keep the information permanently private if its reviewers determine that the PCAOB’s findings were “arbitrary and capricious.”
Meanwhile, the public will learn nothing about the appeals process or the issues under contention, which will further cloud the results of PCAOB inspections for the accounting firms’ corporate clients who read them. “Until now, the SEC has not restricted the transparency of inspection reports pending the opportunity to seek review,” a PCAOB spokesman tells CFO.
So let’s get this straight – if an accounting firm takes issue with anything in the PCAOB’s report, the firm can then run crying to the SEC – which makes that portion of the report secret – and then the report will sit dormant until that portion reads to their liking which can take 30 to 100 days? OH! And on top of that, if the SEC finds something to be ‘arbitrary and capricious’ that issue will never see the light of day?
It’s not like these inspection reports are being issued at a rapid clip (PwC’s and KPMG’s reports for ’09 are still MIA) or filled with details that are actually meaningful to regular folks (e.g. the clients inspected) and now the SEC is going to let the firms write their own inspection reports.
So much for that small matter of “Oversight.” At least the SEC is being (somewhat) transparent about a power grab.