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.
Late yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Examiner Anton Valukus released a 2,200 page report that details the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It points the finger at Lehman execs for engaging in shady accounting that Ernst & Young knew about and was comfortable with. Lehman’s Board of Directors were not informed of the questionable accounting treatment.
To put it in more technical terms: Ernst & Young is in deep shit. The lead partner on the Lehman audwed more times than Dick Fuld for crissakes.
The accounting in question was known inside Lehman as “Repo 105.” These transactions moved billions of dollars off of Lehman’s balance sheet that were described by emails in the report as “basically window dressing” and their global financial describing them as having “no substance.” The Times reports that the treatment was so crucial to LEH that one executive, Herbert McCade, was known internally as the “balance sheet czar” and that he described in an email that the treatment was “another drug we r on.”
The really bad part for Ernst & Young is that they were okay with the “drug.” From the report, the lead partner stated that E&Y “had been aware of Lehman’s Repo 105 policy and transactions for many years.” For you wonky types, Lehman was accounting for these “Repo 105” transactions based on guidance from Statement on Financial Reporting Standard 140, Accounting for Transfers of Financial Assets and Repurchase Financing Transactions.
E&Y’s “team had a number of additional conversations with Lehman about Repo 105 over the years,” although they were not involved with drafting the policy nor did the firm provide any advisory services related to the transactions. According to the lead partner on the engagement, the firm simply “bec[a]me comfortable with the Policy for purposes of auditing financial statements.”
The problem, according to the Examiner’s report is that E&Y was okay with the treatment based on the theory:
Ernst & Young’s view, however, was not based upon an analysis of whether actual Repo 105 transactions complied with SFAS 140. Rather, Ernst & Young’s review of Lehman’s Repo 105 Accounting Policy was purely “theoretical.” In other words, Ernst & Young solely assessed Lehman’s understanding of the requirements of SFAS 140 in the abstract and as reflected in its Accounting Policy; Ernst & Young did not opine on the propriety of the transactions as a balance sheet management tool.
According to Lehman’s Global Financial Controller Martin Kelly, “Ernst & Young ‘was comfortable with the treatment under GAAP for the same reasons that Lehman was comfortable.'” Don’t you love it when things work out like that?
Ernst & Young has issued a statement that simply addresses the final audit that the firm performed: “Our last audit of the company was for the fiscal year ending Nov. 30, 2007. Our opinion indicated that Lehman’s financial statements for that year were fairly presented in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), and we remain of that view.”
SO! E&Y is in a bit of a pickle. Civil suits have already been filed against both firms and more investigations will certainly be coming. If you’ve got some time over the weekend, take a flip through this beauty. We know there is accounting porn in there for some of you.