Regulators are carrying out a sweeping investigation of conflicts of interest at the nation’s largest accounting firms, asking whether consulting and other nonaudit services they sell undermine their ability to conduct independent reviews of public companies’ financials, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Securities and Exchange Commission probe highlights the agency’s new focus on financial-market gatekeepers such as accountants, bankers and lawyers. These firms help companies raise capital and communicate with shareholders, but also have duties under federal investor-protection laws. Auditors are a shareholder’s first line of defense against sloppy or dodgy accounting.
The Big Four audit 66% of all public companies with a market capitalization over $75 million, according to Audit Analytics. All four have paid fines to the SEC since 2014 to settle prior regulatory investigations of audit independence violations.
The $95 billion Ohio State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) is facing a special state audit over a report that accuses the pension fund of secretly collaborating with Wall Street firms, lacking transparency, and wasting billions of dollars.
In June, Benchmark Financial Services released preliminary findings of a forensic investigation of Ohio STRS titled “The High Cost of Secrecy.” The report ripped into the retirement system, saying it “has long abandoned transparency, choosing instead to collaborate with Wall Street firms to eviscerate Ohio public records laws and avoid accountability.”
The Ohio Auditor of State’s Office recently sent a letter to Ohio STRS Executive Director William Neville saying it has received “numerous complaints” regarding the report and that it had conducted a preliminary examination into the matter.
About 1,000 current and retired Ohio educators skeptical of the true financial shape of their $90 billion state pension fund are preparing to sue to force greater cooperation with a $75,000 self-funded investigation of its books.
The forensics audit, financed through money raised from members, is being undertaken by pension investment expert Ted Siedle — a former Securities Exchange Commission attorney, financial forensics investigator, and co-author of the book “Who Stole My Pension?”
The public records lawsuit will ask the Ohio Supreme Court to force the State Teachers Retirement System, serving some 500,000 active, inactive, and retired members, to release information that investment firms have claimed is proprietary or a trade secret.