BDO is trying to put the E.S. Bankest/Banco Espirito mess behind it by submitting a “confidential agreement” to settle its litigation with the bankruptcy estate of E.S. Bankest, according to the South Florida Business Journal.
It sounds as though this could be put to rest as the bankruptcy trustee Barry Mukamal is quoted as saying, “I’m satisfied that this settlement is in the best interests of the estate,” although the creditors have to give the stamp approval as well. What’s not immediately clear from the article is to what extent Banco Espirito is involved in this settlement, the only mention being “”Lisbon-based Banco Espírito Santo and the estate of E.S. Bankest sued BDO Seidman regarding more than $140 million lost to a financial scheme run by former officers of E.S. Bankest.” I shot an email over to Steven Thomas who has represented Banco Espirito to sort this out and his spokesperson replied with the following statement, “BDO USA, LLP has entered into confidential settlement agreements with Banco Espirito Santo and Barry Mukamal, the bankruptcy trustee of E.S. Bankest, L.C., pursuant to which the lawsuits against BDO have been resolved.”
So when I asked if the re-trial was still on, I was simply referred back to the statement which kindasorta makes it sound as though this whole thing is over. But it still isn’t clear to me. Can anyone make sense of this? In the meantime, if I get to the bottom of this riddle, I’ll post an update.
In what amounts to a HUGE win for BDO, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami has ordered a new trial in the case between BDO and Banco Espirito Santo:
A Florida appeals court has thrown out a $521 million jury verdict and ordered a new trial in a dispute over audits between accounting firm BDO Seidman and a major Portuguese bank.
The Third District Court of Appeal in Miami ruled Wednesday that the 2007 trial was wrongly divided into three phases.
That meant jurors decided BDO Seidman should pay punitive damages too early in the case.
BDO Seidman was sued by Portugal’s Banco Espirito Sant med on a Miami company later exposed as a huge fraud. The bank claimed BDO Seidman was negligent for not detecting the fraud, costing the bank $170 million in losses.
Jurors awarded the bank $170 million in losses plus $351 million in punitive damages.
We reached out to the Steven Thomas, lead counsel for the Banco Espirito for his reaction:
This case has been sent back for another trial because of the procedural ‘bifurcation’ issue. We are pleased that the effort and hard work the jury put into this case was recognized by the appellate court, and we specifically note that the Court did not dispute BDO unethical conflicts of interest or its negligence. The evidence of BDO Seidman’s failures of even the most basic auditing procedures is so overwhelming that we expect a new jury will reach the same conclusion as the original jury. We look forward to trying this case and reminding everyone of BDO Seidman’s neglect of its public duty and the enormous conflict of interest they had.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, undisputed negligence cited by Mr Thomas, the mood inside BDO is one of vindication. From the firm’s press release not yet posted on the firm’s website:
The firm is pleased to announce that the Third District Court of Appeal of the state of Florida has unanimously overturned a 2007 jury verdict against the firm and ordered that the Bankest case be retried in the 11th Circuit Court. The Court of Appeal concluded that:
• The Trial Court erred in its original decision to trifurcate the trial, ruling that it was prejudicial to have allowed the case to be presented in three phases. This made it possible for the jury to find BDO grossly negligent without, at the same time, considering the conduct of other actors, including representatives of Banco Espirito Santo.
• The Appellate Court further concluded that the evidence of reliance on BDO’s audit opinions was insufficient to sustain the claims of the Bankest investors, save for the one individual who testified at trial.
• The Trial Court improperly allowed into evidence prejudicial hearsay testimony and documents that further served to deprive BDO of a fair trial.
The Appellate Court concluded, “We have carefully considered every substantive and procedural authority that might be applied to preserve at least some of the jury’s findings. In this case, no such balm is found.”
“We are very pleased that the Appeals court has reversed the lower court verdict. We have consistently stated that we were confident that the jury’s erroneous verdict in this case would be reversed on appeal. The addition of punitive damages at the time only served to emphasize the injustice that took place at the trial court,” said CEO Jack Weisbaum. “A new trial will be in accordance with the Court of Appeal’s decision and we will prove that BDO acted at all times consistent with its professional obligations and that its audit opinions were based on the proper application of generally accepted auditing standards.”
So we’ve got a new trial with a re-energized BDO and a tenacious plaintiff. It sounds like BDO will stick with its defense strategy of “we did no wrong,” so this should be fun.
Oral arguments for BDO’s appeal of the verdict in the Banco Espirito fraud case were this past Tuesday, the 16th, in front of the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami.
If you’re not familiar with this case, we’ll catch you up: Banco Espirito Santo International Ltd., Banco Espirito Santo S.A., and ESB Finance all invested in E.S. Bankest L.C. BDO served as the auditor of Bankest. Crazy massive fraud (bogus accounts receivable) was going on at Bankest that was discovered by Banco Esprito. Bankest went bankrupt, their executives went to jail, Banco Espirito lost millions.
Banco sued BDO in 2004 and in 2007 a jury found the Firm liable for malpractice and gross negligence. Prior to the jury’s decision, BDO CEO Jack Weisbaum testified that the firm would not be able to pay punitive damages. The jury didn’t care and awarded Banco $170 million in compensatory damages and $351.7 million in punitive damages for a grand total of $521.7 million, the same amount of accounts receivable that BDO “audited”. Now here were are, it’s 2010, appeals process. Whew. Follow?
We spoke with Steven Thomas, who has represented Banco Espirito Santo throughout this case, earlier this week and he filled us in on many details. BDO is appealing the verdict arguing that the case should not have been bifurcated (i.e. divided into two) at trial. In other words, it sounds as though BDO has resorted to arguing technical legal points in this appeal as opposed to defending against the finding that they both performed malpractice and were grossly negligent.
As we explained above, the malpractice and gross negligence arose out of BDO’s failure to discover the fraudulent accounts receivable at Bankest. At trial, Mr. Thomas told us that under cross-examination, the BDO engagement partner admitted that it was the auditors’ job to find fraud and then subsequently contradicted himself when being questioned by his own counsel, saying it wasn’t their job.
Regardless of what side you fall on in the whole auditors’ responsibility to discover fraud argument, Mr. Thomas told us this, “I have a litigated a lot of cases on this issue and we never, ever, ever lose.”
We reached out to BDO and Greenberg Traurig the law firm representing BDO for comment. Neither firm has gotten back to us.
BDO has indicated that it will appeal this case to the Florida Supreme Court if necessary and since BDO International was found to be not liable, the entire judgment falls to the U.S. firm. BDO had $620 million in revenues in its most recent fiscal year and currently has around 3,000 employees. And despite the fact that this case will not be resolved for some time, if BDO ultimately compelled to pay the damages it could have a devastating impact on the firm.