E&Y worked hard ignoring whistleblowers, goat poo assets, and cowering to unqualified CFOs to earn […]
Over at Bloomberg, Jonathan Weil (who has the tendency to let the dust settle before chiming in) takes Ernst & Young to task for their lack of willingness to take responsibility for the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and digs up a bunch of old bodies in the process.
E&Y had established itself as a repeat offender long before Governor-Elect Cuomo filed his suit. In recent years we’ve seen four former E&Y partners sentenced to prison for selling illegal tax shelters, while other partners have been disciplined by the SEC for blessing fraudulent financial statements at a variety of companies, including Cendant Corp. and Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp.
In the Bally case, E&Y last year paid an $8.5 million fine, without admitting or denying the SEC’s professional-misconduct claims. The SEC also has imposed sanctions against E&Y three times since 2004 for violating its auditor-independence rules.
After that friendly reminder (which certainly makes some people wince), JW takes a look at the E&Y’s response to the suit, specifically the part where they more or less say that Cuomo is off his rocker, “There is no factual or legal basis for a claim to be brought against an auditor in this context where the accounting for the underlying transaction is in accordance with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).”
Weil says E&Y is missing the point entirely:
That isn’t an accurate depiction of the claims Cuomo brought, though. Cuomo’s suit unambiguously took the position that Lehman violated GAAP. What’s more, it’s not credible for E&Y to say that Lehman didn’t. (An E&Y spokesman, Charles Perkins, said he “can’t comment beyond our statement.”)
In the footnotes to its audited financial statements, Lehman said it accounted for all its repurchase agreements as financings. This was false, because Lehman accounted for its Repo 105 transactions as sales, a point the Valukas report chronicled in exhaustive detail.
The question is, of course, if this all adds up to fraud on E&Y’s part. Cuomo says it does. Weil says that E&Y needs to come up with a better story. Colin Barr, on the other hand, writes that E&Y could easily turn the tables:
The Ernst & Young statement suggests the firm will argue that it can’t be prosecuted under the Martin Act because Lehman, not E&Y, was the outfit actually producing the financial reports, and because it was Lehman, not E&Y, that was peddling billions of dollars of securities just months before its implosion.
In this view, E&Y was just a gatekeeper hired to vouch for Lehman’s books, something it will claim it did well within the confines of the law. This strikes lawyers who are familiar with the law as an eminently reasonable approach, if not exactly a surefire recipe for success.
“If I were Ernst & Young, I would assert I was not a primary actor,” said Margaret Bancroft, a partner at Dechert LLP and author of a 2004 memo that explained the Martin Act soon after Spitzer began brandishing it against Wall Street. “You can say that with more than a straight face.”
“Just gatekeepers,” and not “fraudsters,” is obviously the preferred view but the catch is, E&Y would be admitting that they are really shitty gatekeepers.
This was worth the wait.
Directly from the firm’s website:
Ernst & Young’s Response to New York Attorney General’s Complaint
New York, 21 December 2010 – We intend to vigorously defend against the civil claims alleged by the New York Attorney General.
There is no factual or legal basis for a claim to be brought against an auditor in this context where the accounting for the underlying transaction is in accordance with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Lehman’s audited financial statements clearly portrayed Lehman as a highly leveraged entity operating in a risky and volatile industry.
Lehman’s bankruptcy occurred in the midst of a global financial crisis triggered by dramatic increases in mortgage defaults, associated losses in mortgage and real estate portfolios, and a severe tightening of liquidity. Lehman’s bankruptcy was preceded and followed by other bankruptcies, distressed mergers, restructurings, and government bailouts of all of the other major investment banks, as well as other major financial institutions. In short, Lehman’s bankruptcy was not caused by any accounting issues.
What we have here is a significant expansion of the Martin Act. Although the Martin Act is almost 90 years old, we believe this is the first time that an Attorney General is attempting to use this law to assert claims against an accounting firm, rather than the company that took the alleged actions.
We look forward to presenting the facts in a court of law.
In other words, Andy – get lost; drop dead; suck it. AM Law Daily reports that E&Y has big guns on the case:
Miles Ruthberg, a former global litigation chair at Latham & Watkins, confirmed, via an e-mail to The Am Law Daily, that he’s representing E&Y in the suit along with Latham securities litigation and professional liability cochair Jamie Wine and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel white-collar defense and SEC regulatory cochair Barry Berke. Latham, which has previously represented E&Y, has been handling securities litigation against the accounting firm stemming from Lehman’s failure.
To mark this occasion, we present an appropriate video (BL-inspired):
Get some coffee first.
We’re working through it and we’ll update with anything interesting. If you see anything worth mentioning, chime in below.
Or throws another scalp on the pile, whatever you prefer.
The Journal is obviously very cozy with the Governor-elect:
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a lawsuit against Ernst & Young for civil fraud Tuesday, accusing one of the nation’s largest accounting firms of helping Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. hide its financial weakness from investors for about seven years before the bank finally collapsed in September of 2008.
Ernst & Young knew about, supported and advised Lehman on its “R s, a type of debt the bank took on, but labeled as sales, which made the firm appear to investors less risky than it really was, according to the complaint. The audit firm also stood by while Lehman misled analysts and investors on conference calls and in financial filings about its levels of risk, particularly after the firm’s stability began to crack after the credit crisis began in 2007, said the complaint.
“Ernst & Young substantially assisted Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., now bankrupt, to engage in a massive accounting fraud,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in his complaint.
Now that the AG has pulled the trigger on this, we’re wondering what’s next. E&Y still isn’t talking, other than the statement they’ve been giving since the bankruptcy examiner’s report came out in March. One comment suggested a settlement in the nine figure range which would put them in proximity of the DOJ’s fine of KPMG back in 2005.
Colin Barr over a Fortune reports that Cuomo wants at least the audit fees back ($150 million, according to the complaint):
The complaint, filed in state Supreme Court, seeks the repayment of at least $150 million in fees the audit firm collected between 2001, when Lehman’s aggressive accounting began, and 2008, when the venerable bank collapsed, precipitating a global bank run.
“Our lawsuit seeks to recover the fees collected by Ernst & Young while it was supposed to be using accountable, honest measures to protect the public,” said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Something tells us that Cuomo won’t be satisfied by simply the audit fees; we’re talking about the largest bankruptcy in history, after all. If you feel like ballparking the fine, we wouldn’t turn away any outlandish guesses.
UPDATE: Felix Salmon also points out E&Y’s lack of communicado:
E&Y knew this was coming—we all did—but despite that fact, its only public reaction so far has been to refuse to comment. That doesn’t look good, and it forces us back to what the company said in the wake of the Valukas report—that its work as Lehman auditor “met all applicable professional standards,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
He also agrees with us that the fine will be greater than the $150 million and notes (not hiding his disappointment) that no partners were named, “E&Y will avoid admitting blame and also avoid criminal prosecution. […] [T]he only defendant is Ernst & Young LLP; there are no named individuals on the list. So E&Y’s partners are probably safe too. Sadly.”
Unless, of course, the SEC or PCAOB opt to take up that disciplinary slack. Don’t forget that some people think that Cuomo is making this move because he wants the “last scalp” before leaving the AG’s office for the Governor’s mansion. We realize pinning hopes on the SEC and PCAOB isn’t exactly comforting for those wishing to see more action but maybe Cuomo’s actions are the motivation they needed.
We’ll keep you updated throughout the day and if there’s any internal word from the hallowed walls of 5 Times Square, do email us the details.
The Fox Business Network ace reporter is saying that Cuomo & Co. would like to settle this thing up ASAP (a “quick scalp” before AC goes to Albany) however it is definitely not happening this week because, “According to people at Ernst & Young […] one of the lead investigators in Cuomo’s office is on vacation.”
Also interesting is that Chaz reports that E&Y thought there wasn’t going to be such a rush to get this thing settled but now everyone is all worked up because the story got leaked.
As for the SEC stuff, we don’t know what to make of it since there’s been hardly any news about talks between E&Y and the Commission. Francine McKenna told us that Gaspo “got a lot of smoke blown up his tush,” which is typical for reporters who cover Big 4 firms once in a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice.
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 t��������������������ore–>
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.
However, we came across a little mistake that could worry voters that Drew doesn’t really pay attention to the little things that matter. Like people’s names.
You’d think that if Cuomo was going to traipse all over town throwing allegations at people, he’d at least know what those people’s names are.
Case in point, the first line of the response from former CFO (and current consumer banking CEO) Joe Price had to go to the trouble of pointing out that his name is not, in fact, “Joseph,” it is “Joe.”
Talk about a low blow, Cuomo. You think you can run Albany and just get people’s names wrong? They’ve threatened to shut down the whole government for less than that.
Hey, Cuomo, The Name’s Joe, Not Joseph [Charlotte Business Journal]
If you live or work in New York City you know how the subway can be both a blessing (when it runs on time) and a curse (when it doesn’t) or for reasons that on Wednesday became clear: fare hikes.
If you don’t live in New York you can appreciate why the agency responsible for public transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is having such a difficult time making ends meet. At the top of the list is compensation and benefits costs, which account for two-thirds of the MTA’s $12 billion operating budget for 2011.
The MTA says its health care costs are going up about 9 percent annually-which is actually in line with national increases. The challenge for a public agency of course is that it is locked into contracts with its heavily unionized workforce. Making changes is not easy.
The plan the MTA put forward Wednesday was to enter in what it called “net zero” contracts with its unions-contracts in which any raise would be “paid” for by givebacks in productivity, changes in work rules or increased contributions to health care benefits. The unions took exception to this proposal but no one doubts that the compensation structure of government employees needs to come in-line with their private sector counterparts. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for governor, has made reforming this imbalance part of his platform.
Debt service aside (and the MTA’s debt service totals $1.8 billion this year, growing to $2.5 billion by 2014), the MTA, like so many government entities throughout the country, has long term health care challenges ahead. Its health care retirement obligation totals $1.4 billion growing to $1.7 billion by 2014. While the MTA continues to pay enough into its retiree health care fund to pay for its current retirees’ health care, the authority, citing this year’s cash-flow problems, will not pay $57 million this year into a fund for future obligations.
The Great Recession has helped bring the issue of government post-retirement obligations to light. As government revenues shrink and obligations grow, taxpayers sense an inherent injustice between their own grim retirement prospects and the assurances given to public sector workers. Subway service cuts and fare hikes are only meaningful if they address the long-term problems rather than enable government to deal with short term crisis.
Cuomo is banking on this public displeasure, as is the MTA. Next year the MTA’s contract with its largest union is up for renewal. The transit authority will be able to test whether it has public support for changing the way the state entity does business with unions. Bringing government into the 21st century by reducing health care and other post-retirement obligations will be good for taxpayers and for businesses, including those with heavily unionized workforces.
…just disappointed about Andy getting all sue-y over BNY Mellon’s Ivy Asset Management’s involvement with Berns Madoff, which will result in more money going to – SHOCK – lawyers.
Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s (BK) Chief Financial Officer Todd Gibbons told investors Wednesday that the company is “a bit disappointed” about the New York Attorney General’s decision to file a law suit against the bank related to Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme.
But as a result of the suit, and the current environment more broadly, legal cost are expected to run higher, the CFO said at UBS AG’s (UBS) Global Financial Services Conference in New York.
In the largest nonprofit fraud case we’ve ever seen, State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr is getting it from NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for perpetrating a $14 million scam using his non-profit as an ATM. Ouch.
Soundview Comprehensive Community Development Corp., a Bronx-based health care non-profit, appears to be little more than a vehicle for Espada’s extravagant lifestyle and Cuomo doesn’t find any of it to be entertainment.
“Siphoning money from a charity would be egregious under any circumstances, but the fact that this was orchestrated by the State Senate Majority Leader makes it especially reprehensible,” Cuomo said in a statement.
Espada’s charity allegedly paid $100,000 for campaign literature, $80,000 on meals for Espada (including $20,000 for sushi – one of JDA’s weaknesses but hey, at least I pay for my own), vacations for the family and $2,500 a month for a co-op rental in the Bronx in which Espada supposedly lives. Double ouch.
If you’re into that sort of thing, you can check out the summons from the AG’s office here.
To date, Cuomo’s complaint is merely a civil one but he has left the door wide open for criminal charges against Espada and 19 others, including family members installed on the charity’s board. Taking a page from the Crazy Eddie fraud handbook, I see.
Espada also allegedly used the nonprofit’s corporate credit card to cover up to $450,000 in expenses that he’s now admitted may have been personal. Snicker snicker, everyone knows the corporate card should only be used for personal expenses if one is trying to fund an affair and hoping the wife doesn’t find out. Duh.
Because being a nonprofit looting Senate majority leader is hard work, Espada took the first 14 weeks of the year off and charged the paid leave to – you guessed it – Soundview. Since its board is packed with friends and family, they approved a $75,000 payout for personal expenses associated with this respite in a lump-sum payment at the beginning of the year.
Espada has responded by claiming Cuomo’s accusations amount to little more than a “witch hunt” meant to advance the AG’s political career. Whatevs.
Meanwhile, Espada’s Senate homies are praying for him. For $14 million bucks, he needs all the Hail Marys he can get, especially since the FBI and IRS raided the clinic this morning. Good luck with that.
We briefly discussed work-inspired nightmares yesterday but as professiona robably don’t get a whole lot more unsettling than Joe L. Price’s.
Price, the former CFO at Bank of America, must be tossing and turning lately, what with the attorney general of New York naming him personally last week in a lawsuit over the bank’s handling of the ugly Merrill Lynch acquisition/investor-subsidized bailout/compensation party in late 2008.
Now, Price and former BofA CEO Ken Lewis face another unpleasant twist in what they must’ve thought originally was a slam dunk in an awkward but palatable settlement with the SEC over the Merrill Lynch deal (beware that slam-dunk feeling [see Tenet, George]).
Recall how Jed Rakoff, the irascible U.S. District Court judge presiding over the BofA/Merrill Lynch case, last year rejected a settlement between the SEC and BofA, saying that $33 million wasn’t nearly enough for the bank to make things right with investors who were kept in the dark about the unsavory downside – if that’s not too generous a word – for taking on Merrill Lynch’s baggage. And then on Monday Rakoff started asking mean questions about the second rendition, in which the SEC and BofA are saying, okay, fine, how does $150 million sound?
Going by some of the doubts Rakoff raised, he isn’t leaning toward letting the BofA executives ease on out of their difficult litigation-riddled winter into a springtime of sun-dappled redemption and new life. Easter, as it were, may yet be cold and wet (as may Passover, choose your festival). But don’t blame Rakoff because there are better scapegoats – the SEC, Andrew Cuomo, Punxatawny Phil …
Cuomo, that pesky AG in Albany, asserted in his allegations against Price et al. that BofA lawyers who had counseled against pulling the curtain aside on certain details about Merrill Lynch were essentially operating in the dark and that they were, therefore, misled. “Bank management failed to provide any of their lawyers with accurate information about the losses which the disclosure issue concerned,” the civil-suit complaint says, adding painful elaboration that alleges “false and incomplete information provided by Price.” (Ron Fink explains here).
This is not the kind of thing a CFO likes to read about himself or herself, which is why it may be best as a rule to come clean from the get-go. At the heart of the controversy is the assertion that BofA execs were simply not forthright about how they allowed Merrill Lynch brass to receive billions of dollars in bonus bucks in exchange for having lost billions of investor dollars.
In such a context, Radoff has implied, $33 million is chicken feed and $150 million is – I don’t know – cat food? The good judge apparently wants the bankers to throw some steak over the wall.
Also at issue, and fundamental to how BofA is managed going forward, are questions about how certain aspects of corporate governance are handled, perhaps especially about how compensation is set. Rakoff suggested that there might be better ways to come up with a reasonable pay scheme than leaving it to BofA’s compensation committee to pick its compensation consultant of choice.
A big clue about how he might rule on this is in his observation on Monday as to the “incredibly bloated compensation of too many executives in too many American companies.”