|ABOUT THE POB
THE HON. CHARLES A. BOWSHER
Thank you Mr. Chairman. My name is Charles Bowsher and since late 1999, I have been chairman of the Public Oversight Board, which was created in 1977 to oversee the voluntary self-regulatory program of the accounting profession. I am pleased to be here today to discuss our observations about recent problems in regulation of the accounting profession, to offer our recommendations for reform, and to discuss the decision of the POB in January to terminate its existence as of March 31 of this year.
I am joined today by Aulana L. Peters, a member of the POB, a retired partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and by Alan B. Levenson, a senior partner at Fulbright & Jaworski, who is counsel to the POB and former director of the SECs Division of Corporation Finance.
The accounting world as it exists today is the outgrowth of a long series of steps taken by Congress, the securities industry, and the major accounting firms over many years since the bleak days of the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed in the 1930s.
After the market crash in 1929, Congress enacted a series of reforms that laid the foundation for the system we know today. Chief among them was the enactment of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which included the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission; the requirement that corporations that sell stock to the public register with the SEC; and that public companies undergo an annual independent audit of their financial statements. The system created in the early 1930s survived for more than 40 years with only minor adjustments.
In the 1970s, however, it was revealed in hearings before the late Senator Frank Churchs Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations that some companies had paid bribes to foreign officials to win business and that these payments had been kept secret from auditors and the public. In the aftermath of these revelations, Congress - under the leadership of this committee - passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977 to make clear that bribery of foreign officials by American firms is unacceptable.
Another event affecting the accounting profession in the 1970s was the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad - the largest bankruptcy since the 1930s and the Enron failure of its day.
In the wake of the sensitive payments scandal, the Penn Central collapse, and audit failures, the late Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana in 1977 chaired a series of hearings to determine whether new federal regulation of the accounting profession might be appropriate. In response to these hearings, and as an alternative to legislation, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), in consultation with the SEC and with the support of the nations leading accounting firms, created a self-regulatory framework for the profession. To enhance the quality of audits of financial statements of public corporations, peer review was instituted as the cornerstone of the self-regulatory program.
To run the new self-regulatory programs, including peer review, the AICPA created the SEC Practice Section (SECPS), composed of firms that audit the financial statements of public corporations. And to oversee the programs of the SECPS, the independent Public Oversight Board (POB) was created in 1977. Its function is to protect the public interest. Specifically, the POB was created to monitor and comment on matters that affect public confidence in the integrity of the audit process.
I believe peer review - where one accounting firm hires another to review its operations and internal controls - resulted in major improvements. The recommendations that flowed from peer reviews in the early days led to substantive improvements in the quality controls at accounting firms, large and small.
However, even though the new self-regulatory programs were innovative for their time, they were created with some concern and caution.
John C. Burton, a distinguished professor of accounting at Columbia University and the chief accountant at the SEC when reforms were being made in 1977, warned in testimony before the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee in 1978, that peer review is likely to be seen as a process of mutual back scratching. He also warned that it is highly doubtful that a part-time group [POB] can either in fact or perception provide an effective substitute for statutory regulation.
Harold M. Williams, who was chairman of the SEC at the time of the reforms in the late 1970s, warned in a speech in January 1978, that the effectiveness and credibility of the Public Oversight Board depends on its independence, including its willingness to be critical when called for and its ability to make public its conclusions, recommendations, and criticisms. Chairman Williams also made the point that an effective POB could only be effective if it is not impeded in performing its functions and responsibilities.
Now, a quarter century after the reforms of the late 1970s, I believe events of recent months demonstrate that the warnings of Dr. Burton and Chairman Williams have come to pass. Ive come to the conclusion that the voluntary self-regulatory program needs to be replaced because it has failed to keep pace with challenges faced by the profession. More troubling is the resistance of the professions trade association, the AICPA, and several of the Big 5 firms to major reform.
Arthur Levitt, the former SEC chairman, also described this problem in recent testimony before the Senate Banking Committee. More than three decades ago, he said, Leonard Spacek, a visionary accounting industry leader, stated that the profession couldnt survive as a group, obtaining the confidence of the public unless as a profession we have a workable plan of self-regulation. Yet, all along the profession has resisted meaningful oversight.
In 1980, the SEC said in a report prepared for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs that the POB has an obligation to serve as the conscience and critic of the self-regulatory effort. The POBs charter provides that the POB is to represent the public interest on all matters that may affect public confidence in the integrity, reliability and credibility of the audit process.
Despite our attempts to serve the public interest and be the conscience and critic, the POB has been impeded since I became chairman in its ability to oversee the profession. Three events are noteworthy in how the POB has been frustrated in its ability for effectively carry out its responsibilities to serve the public interest:
The recommendations of the Panel on Audit Effectiveness, including a formal charter for the POB, were designed to improve the existing voluntary self-regulatory system, not to create a new regulatory structure for the profession. At the time of the panels recommendations in August 2000, neither the POB nor members of the panel thought it was likely that Congress would approve a statutory self-regulatory organization to govern the profession.
These three events and the frustration they created were among the factors that led the POB to decide, on January 20 of this year, to terminate its existence. But the precipitating event was the announcement by the Chairman of the SEC, Harvey Pitt, of a proposed new regulatory structure for the accounting profession. This plan was worked out in private talks between the SEC and the AICPA and the Big 5 accounting firms with no input from the POB, which had repeatedly been assured that it would be consulted.
The new proposal effectively rendered the POB a lame duck. The POB believed it could not oversee the activities of the accounting profession under the circumstances and that it would mislead the public to appear to do so. Furthermore, the POB was concerned that were it to continue in operation during an interim period before a new governance structure was in place, it would leave the impression that it approved of the Pitt proposal, which it did not. As conscience and critic, the POB felt it had no choice but to disband. Only by so acting, we felt, could we protect the public interest. What the POB did was akin to what an auditor does when it believes it must resign from a client engagement because of a fundamental disagreement.
Attached to my testimony, Mr. Chairman, are copies of the letters I sent as chairman to Mr. Pitt on January 21 and January 31, 2002, detailing the POBs decision to terminate. These letters are attached as Appendices A and B. I would also ask that a letter to the SEC dated March 5, 2002, urging that an independent person be named to conduct the independence reviews which the POB was unable to complete, be made a part of the record.
Mr. Chairman, the current system of self-regulation of the accounting profession has significant problems.
First, the funding of the POB is subject to control by the firms through the SECPS. In the past - as noted above - the SECPS has cut off that funding in an effort to restrict POB activities. In addition, the AICPA and SECPS insisted on a cap on POB funding when the new charter was created.
Second, the disciplinary system is not timely or effective. Disciplinary proceedings are deferred while litigation or regulatory proceedings are in process. This results in years of delay and sanctions have not been meaningful. The Professional Ethics Division of the AICPA, which handles disciplinary matters against individuals, does not have adequate public representation on its Board. Investigations by the Quality Control Inquiry Committee of the SECPS, which handles allegations of improprieties against member firms related to audits of SEC clients, do not normally include access to firm work papers and firm personnel involved in the engagements under investigation. The disciplinary system cannot issue subpoenas or compel testimony - it must rely on the cooperation of the individual being investigated - and cannot talk to the plaintiff or the client company involved. Furthermore, there is no privilege or confidentiality protection for investigations or disciplinary proceedings, and disciplinary actions are often not made public.
Another problem is that monitoring of firms accounting and auditing practices by the peer review process has come to be viewed as ineffective, and has been described as clubby and back-scratching. The peer review team does not examine the work of audits that are under investigation or in litigation, and public peer review reports are not informative.
Other problems include the fact that the current governance structure does not have the weight of a Congressional mandate behind it. There is a perceived lack of candid and timely public reporting of why and how highly publicized audit failures and fraud occurred, and what actions have or will be taken to assure that such problems do not recur.
Mr. Chairman, the Public Oversight Board strongly believes that a new regulatory structure for the accounting profession is essential. However, we believe that to be effective, it must be totally independent of the accounting profession and it must be based on the foundation of congressional action creating a statutory self-regulatory organization.
The Board recommends that Congress create a new Independent Institute of Accountancy - the IIA - and center all regulation under its auspices. A seven-member board would run the Institute totally independent of the AICPA, the Big 5, and other firms. The chair and vice chair would be full time employees of the Institute; five other members would serve on a part time basis. All would be appointed by a panel composed of the chair of the SEC, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board and the Secretary of the Treasury. Once named, the chair of the IIA would join these three in naming other members of the board. Members of the IIA board could be removed only by a two-thirds vote of the board itself.
The SEC would have oversight of the IIA, and the SECs Office of the Chief Accountant would be the liaison to the IIA. Attached as Appendix C is a chart showing the organization of the IIA.
Important functions of the Institute would include:
|The POB feels these reforms are necessary if trust is to be
restored in the accounting profession. The Board has presented what it believes is a
sensible, workable plan for reform. It is premised on the firmly held belief that the
fundamental purpose of regulation is to serve the public interest and that of investors.
If this is to be accomplished, regulation must be totally independent of the profession,
it must pull together all aspects of regulation from standards to discipline, it must be
transparent, and it must provide for adequate funding and staff.
A decade ago this committee was in the forefront of enacting major reforms for the banking industry - reforms that were widely opposed by the banks and their lobbyists. Opponents then predicted gloom and doom for the industry should the proposed reforms be enacted. In reality, the reforms contained in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991 repaired flaws in regulation of the nations banking industry. More important, they significantly strengthened the industry.
Today the Congress again is called upon to institute reform. In the wake of the Enron debacle, the POB, acting as the conscience and critic of the profession, strongly believes that to protect investors and the public, the old system of voluntary self-regulation for the accounting industry must be replaced. While many will urge that Congress act with caution and that the profession be again given the opportunity to fix the present system with marginal changes, the POB believes it is time to resist the continuation of the status quo and move ahead with fundamental change.
Mr. Chairman, you recently made the point that recent events have had a critical impact on the national confidence in the financial markets and that the time has come to focus on the protection of investors and the efficient functioning of our capital markets. I could not agree more. That is why I believe it is time to resist continuation of the status quo and move ahead with fundamental change.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.