Sunday, June 19, 2011

NYT op-ed: do lawyers and accountants offer the same protection against corporate misconduct that they once did? (Not KPMG)

Mark W. Everson's New York Times op-ed today, Lawyers and Accountants Once Put Integrity First, suggests:
It will take decades to fully untangle the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, but as our economy fitfully heals, it would be prudent to ask whether lawyers and accountants offer the same protection against corporate misconduct that they once did.
Three or four decades ago, investors and regulators could rely on these professionals to provide a check on corporate risk-taking. But over time, attorneys and auditors came to see their practices not as independent firms that strengthen the integrity of capitalism, but as businesses measured chiefly by the earnings of their partners.

...Lawyers and accountants who were once the proud pillars of our financial system have become the happy architects of its circumvention. Nowhere is this more the case than in the world of tax law. Companies (and wealthy individuals) pay handsomely for tax professionals not just to find the lines, but to push them ever outward. During my tenure at the Internal Revenue Service, the low point came when we discovered that a senior tax partner at KPMG (one of the Big Four, which by virtue of their prominence set standards for the others) had advocated — in writing — to leaders of the company’s tax practice that KPMG make a “business/strategic decision” to ignore a particular set of I.R.S. disclosure rules. The reasoning was that the I.R.S. was unlikely to discover the underlying transactions, and that even if we did, any penalties assessed could be absorbed as a cost of doing business.
Not just tax law, I'd point out: KPMG has a notorious role in the Atlantic Yards saga, producing a highly suspect report on the Brooklyn real estate market to bolster the state's non-credible projections of a ten-year buildout.

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