As we mentioned earlier, the Wall St. Journal has reported that out-going New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will be filing civil fraud charges against Ernst & Young related to its actions (mostly lack thereof) that led to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Charges are expected this week but everyone is talking about it now obviously (and we were hoping for a quiet week). Anyhoo, we've rounded up some of the early
sound blog bites out there and we'll keep you updated throughout the day. Of course, if you're with E&Y and have any insight or hear some calming, soothing words from TPTB, email us the details. In her column at Forbes, Francine McKenna is happy that Andrew Cuomo is actually doing something, which is more than can be said for the Feds:
Whether Cuomo is doing this on his own, in defiance of the Feds, or has their implicit blessing in light of the Federal Government’s seeming unwillingness to act, New York’s Attorney General is showing the world he’s the only one in the US with the nerve to shake this tree.
Fox News's Greta Van Susteren is not so impressed, saying criminal charges are really what's needed:
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo needs to get tough instead of this "window dressing" CIVIL business. He is soon to be the Governor of NYC and this is his last act as the State's Attorney General. I hope this is not to appease Wall Street. Let a jury decide whether is is criminal behavior or not and whether anyone has committed a crime. As it stands now, Cuomo is blocking that determination with only civil charges.
Felix Salmon postulates that Cuomo is using the possibility of criminal charges to scare E&Y into a settlement:
On the other hand, a civil fraud suit is not a criminal prosecution. Even if E&Y fights the charges and loses, it probably won’t find itself on the receiving end of the kind of criminal charges which brought down Andersen. Still, I’m sure that Cuomo’s office is doing nothing to downplay the contingent existential threat here, in its negotiations with E&Y.
Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism is practically giddy and hopes that this will turn up the heat on Dick Fuld:
One can only hope turning up the heat on Ernst & Young will lead to the prosecution of Richard Fuld. The buck is supposed to stop with the CEO, particularly when they are paid as many bucks as Fuld received. Given the scale of looting that took place in the runup to and after the crisis, there is no hope of getting the banking industry back in its proper role of supporting the real economy until we see some senior bank executives in orange jumpsuits.
CNBC's John Carney thinks that execs at both Lehman and E&Y should take the civil charges as good sign:
Why should executives at Lehman and Ernst & Young be relieved? Because the filing of civil charges rather than criminal charges may signal that prosecutors do not believe they can prove a criminal case. The key difference between criminal and civil charges in these contexts is the quality of evidence and it looks as if New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office has decided it doesn't have the evidence to prove a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fortune's Colin Barr is appalled that E&Y's Global CEO Jim Turley believes that there wasn't any chicanery going on:
Take this exchange between E&Y chief Jim Turley and Fortune's Geoff Colvin, from a September interview. Colvin: Would it be fair to say that the crisis was caused in part by some financial firms doing misleading things that were within the rules? Turley: I don't know that it would be fair to say they were doing misleading things. It's remarkable Turley would still say that two months after the financial firm of the best and the brightest, Goldman Sachs (GS), agreed to pay $550 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges that it misled investors in a bubble-era debt deal. The auditors weren't involved in that one, but the Wall Street mindset was pretty obvious to everyone not running an audit firm.
Over at DealBook, Peter Henning has an interesting theory that the NYAG could be going after the accountants while the SEC focuses on individuals:
If the S.E.C. agreed to share the Lehman case with the New York attorney general, then it may be that the state took the accountants as the focus of its investigation while the federal government concentrates on individuals. Such a division of labor would allow each to husband resources by avoiding any duplication of effort in the investigation – and may be the reason the state is planning to file charges before the S.E.C. decides to act.
Emily Chasan at Reuters managed to get a statement out of someone (Charlie Perkins's phone has likely exploded by now) although the firm is sticking to the talking points:
A spokeswoman for Ernst & Young said the company did not comment on speculation and repeated a previous statement made by the firm about its dealings with Lehman Brothers. "Throughout our period as the auditor of Lehman, we firmly believe our work met all applicable professional standards, applying the rules that existed at the time," the statement said.
Matt Taibbi (whole post is worth a read) is calling for the paramedics:
My guess is that this suit is the beginning of the end for Ernst and Young and, who knows, may be the beginning of a series of investigations that ultimately take down the auditors and ratings agencies that made the financial crisis possible. Without accountants and raters signing off on all the bogus derivative math and bad bookkeeping, a lot of this mess would never have happened.
We'll be updating this post with more reactions and as things develop.