The SEC and the PRC based affiliates of five major accounting firms entered into a settlement of proceedings initiated over the failure to produce audit work papers for issuers with substantial operations in China. The settlement, which provides a mechanism for governing future productions, represents a significant step toward a resolution of these issues which ultimately stem from the intersection of far different cultures and regulatory systems.
In the Matter of BDO China Dahua CPA Co., Ltd., Adm. Proc. File No. 3-15116 (Dec. 3, 2012) is a proceeding which named as Respondents the PRC based affiliates of five major accounting firms: BDO China, Ernst & Young Hau Ming LLP, KPMG Huazhen (Special General Partnership), Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Certified Public Accountants Ltd. and PricewaterhouseCoopers Zhong Tian CPAs Ltd.
The proceeding was based on Rule 102(e)(1)(iii) which permits the Commission to temporarily or permanently deny any person found to have willfully violated or aided and abetted the violation of the Federal securities laws. Section 106 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, as amended by the Dodd-Frank Act, was alleged to have been violated. That Section provides that a PCAOB registered firm that audits the financial statements of a U.S. issuer consents to produce its work papers on request by either the Board or the SEC.
In this matter, each Respondent is registered with the PCAOB. Each Respondent is alleged to have been engaged to audit the financial statements of a PRC based U.S. issuer. Each Respondent was served with a request by the Commission to produce all of its audit work papers for a designated period. Each Respondent declined, at least in part, based on their understanding that the law of the PRC precluded the production. The Order directed that a hearing be held before an ALJ to hear evidence.
Following the hearing the Law Judge issued an initial decision on January 22, 2014. In that decision, much of which was redacted, the Law Judge found that each firm should be censured. In addition, each firm, except BDO, was suspended from practicing before the SEC for six months. The Commission then granted petitions for review filed by Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC as well as the Division. See also In the Matter of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Certified Public Accountants Ltd., Adm. Proc. File No. 3-14872 (May 9, 2012)(subpoena enforcement action against the audit firm related to a different PRC based client).
BDO China, Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC settled with the SEC, admitting certain facts which are the predicate of the proceedings as set forth in Annex A. There were no admissions that the Federal securities or other laws were violated.
Under the terms of the settlement each Respondent is censured and will pay a penalty of $500,000. The Order provides for a stay of the current proceedings for a period of four years. The continuation of the stay is contingent on the implementation of certain undertakings tied to the execution of future requests for work papers. Specifically, the undertakings provide that in the future the SEC will make requests for assistance to the CSRC under international sharing mechanisms which include the IOSCO MMOU. At the same time the staff will make a request to one of the settling Respondents through its designated U.S. agent. The Respondent to whom the request is directed will provide the staff with a certification that the materials have been furnished to the CSRC, along with a log of any documents withheld based on privilege or PRC law provisions which include state secrets. The undertakings provide time limits for the completion of these tasks.
If the Respondent to whom the request is directed fails to provide the required certificates within the specified time periods the Commission can, under Rule 102(e), enter a partial bar as to that Respondent. That bar will have a term of six months and will preclude the firm from issuing an audit report or otherwise serving as a principal auditor for any issuer. If two such bars are ordered they shall run consecutively. There is no appeal from the entry of this order.
Alternatively, if the staff determines that the production made to CSRC is materially incomplete, after an opportunity to cure, a summary proceeding may be instituted before a Law Judge. The Law Judge will have the authority to issue a partial bar, a censure and a penalty of up to $75,000.
Finally, if the staff determines that a Respondent has provided materially deficient responses, there has been substantial delay, material has been withheld without justification under U.S. law and a summary proceeding has not been instituted, it may request that the Commission terminate the stay and restart the proceedings.
The settlement of these proceedings is one step in what has become a long and difficult process regarding the entry of PRC issuers into the U.S. and world capital markets. Issuers based in, or with substantial operations in the PRC, have sought entry into the U.S. and world capital markets. Bringing those firms to markets which are heavily regulated and based on disclosure, however, represents a clash of culture and regulatory regimes.
Here that clash has been evident from the first. While SOX requires Board registered auditors to agree to produce work papers and subjects them to inspections, at the time of registration the firms involved in these proceedings did not provide the Consent to Cooperate. Nevertheless, the Board permitted their registration while reiterating its obligations.
As these proceedings demonstrate, effectuating the requirement that registered firms produce work papers has been difficult for the SEC and the Board. At the same time the Commission and Board have exercised restraint while negotiating resolutions of the issues involved here. For example, after significant efforts the Board was able to enter into an MOU with the CSRC regarding cooperation and the production of work papers. The materials in the underlying actions were produced. Yet an agreement on inspection, while under discussion, has been elusive.
Viewed against this backdrop, the settlements here are significant. The firms were sanctioned, but not barred from appearing and practicing before the SEC. Rather, an additional mechanism for facilitating future requests was arranged under the treat of additional and more significant sanctions. The ultimate success of the process is, however, tied to the MOU negotiated by Board since the settlement only calls for delivery of the materials to the CSRC, not to the SEC. Recent productions by that agency suggest that in the future there will be more cooperation and transparency regarding issuers operating in the PRC. It may well be that the time has come for issuers operating in the PRC to enter the world capital markets.