Chinese units of the “big four” accounting firms were suspended from auditing U.S.-listed companies for six months. The judge’s ruling Wednesday follows a lengthy dispute over the companies’ refusal to furnish their audit papers and documents to the SEC.
The SEC’s Administrative Law Judge Cameron Elliot censured the Chinese affiliates of KPMG, Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young in a ruling that follows December proceedings on the matter.
In his ruling, Judge Elliot said the four companies ‘willfully’ failed to give U.S. regulators the audit work papers of certain Chinese companies — U.S. issuers with securities registered with the SEC — under investigation for accounting fraud.
Auditors operating in China have refused to hand over such documents in the past, citing their fear of violating Chinese secrecy laws. They say that this is up to Washington and Beijing to resolve.
The ruling does not go into direct effect, so U.S.-listed companies in China relying on these firms to review their 2013 books will not be affected. If the companies fail to win on appeal, however, proceedings on the matter could last years, forcing these firms to find new auditors.
In this case, the SEC noted that after strained negotiations with Chinese regulators for years, the agency decided to pursue sanctions against the firms themselves. Although Judge Elliot decided not to impose a permanent bar on the auditors as the SEC requested, he said he had ‘little sympathy’ for them.
‘Respondents operated large accounting businesses for years, knowing that, if called upon to cooperate in a Commission investigation into their business, they must necessarily fail to fully cooperate and might thereby violate the law,’ he said.
He called their behavior an example of bad faith, but also expressed hope that the SEC and the China Securities Regulatory Commission would engage with one another on this matter soon.
Julie DiMauro is the executive editor of FCPA Blog and can be reached here.