How ethical are audit firms?

The recent shenanigans in South Africa surrounding KPMG professional misconduct have again raised the question of how ethical audit firms are. One of the topics that every auditor has read or been taught willingly or unwillingly is ethics.

Whether the auditor likes it or not, ethics has constantly been hammered in his/her mind as a moral distinguishing factor between auditors and those who are not.

Rightly so, auditors issue reports that are supposed to be relied on by third parties who have not been directly in touch with the companies that the auditors audit. Auditors act on behalf of shareholders in most cases but also indirectly/morally act on behalf of any interested parties.

Many of us who have been auditors for quite a while have tried to be as ethical as possible. Surprisingly this has not stopped audit firms for which “ethical auditors” work, to be found short of being ethical.

Question is how can audit firms be found to be short of being ethical while the auditors who work for these firms consider themselves to be ethical?

Take the collapse of Arthur Andersen in 2002 which was brought down by the Enron scandal reducing the known big 5 accounting firms to big 4, and currently look at KPMG which is an international audit firm and part of the current big 4 which has been riddled with one questionable ethical behaviour after another in South Africa.

In South Africa, KPMG has been found to have issued a controversial report alleging that there was a rogue unit in South African Revenue Services which spied on politicians and “big fishes” questionable transactions.

When questions started coming from left right and centre regarding the contents of this report, KPMG rushed to withdraw the report and claimed the contents were not to be relied on.

This was because the report was riddled with all sorts of inaccuracies which only served the interest of KPMG and at that time the audit fee that KPMG was getting probably was the blinding factor.

Was this ethical my big 4 friend?

Even before the fires were doused on the rouge report, KPMG again surfaced with a second scandal of assisting state capturers in South Africa known as “the GUPTAS” who siphoned billions of money from the state and vanished to Dubai and are now being sought by law enforcement agencies. Again, tell me my big four friend is this ethical?

The same KPMG was the auditor of VBS Bank which has subsequently been placed under curatorship and has an exposure of roughly R1.5 billion ($12m) and about R900 million ($71m) is unaccounted for.

As if that is not enough the same partners who oversaw the audit of this bank never declared that they had interests in this bank just to mention a few. Come on auditors how unethical can this get?.

From where I sit, it looks like gone are the days when an auditor used to be respected not only for the audit knowledge he/she displayed but for the incorruptible and ethical conduct he/she displayed.

Usually when a government official is found to have committed questionable acts and displayed unethical behaviour, it is the corporate world that condemns these politicians and are quick to ask for the politician resignation.

Why are the other auditors so quiet in the wake of these unethical shenanigans displayed by KPMG? Could it be that they are also worried that their own “unethical” small skeletons have not yet been thrown out of the cupboards and it is a question of time?

Or is it that they are so ashamed of the acts of their fellow auditors and short of words to express themselves?. Where are the regulators to save the audit profession? We cannot allow a few rotten apples to contaminate the whole tone of good apples.

Professional regulations claim to be the ones to keep us auditors on the straight and narrow but in the wake of all these scandals by one of the big 4, they are all nowhere to be seen.

I know auditor to have so many words when writing their reports therefore they cannot be short of words when it comes to criticism and condemnation of rotten apples within their midst.

Unless you tell me that this has now turned into an “eating” club where some eaters do not want to criticise their fellow eaters. This is a shame on the profession of auditors, who are expected to uphold the highest standards of ethical practice and also a shame to those who decide to keep silent in the wake of these scandals that are engulfing the whole of the auditing fraternity.

What then? Why have the auditors not called for all KPMG management to resign? Why are so many corporates who are audited by KPMG still hanging on to them despite all sorts of unethical behaviour that has surfaced?

I do not want to imagine that these corporates do not understand what ethical behaviour means especially when it comes to big companies but are quick to understand it when it comes to politicians.

Do you also know that when Arthur Andersen collapsed after the Enron scandal, KPMG absorbed most of the auditors who worked for Andersen? What does this tell you about the lot that KPMG is harbouring? Should I call them experienced in scandals?

To save the auditing fraternity, all those who find what KPMG has done to be deplorable need to speak out. All the companies still engaging KPMG need to review the financial statements that KPMG has given them and need to start questioning the ethical behaviour of all their auditors and if anything starts quacking like a duck, it probably is a duck.

The writer is currently an entrepreneur based in Johannesburg and a former auditor with one of the big 4 audit firms in South Africa.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

 

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