(I honored to have the Ethics Sage, Steven Mintz, write a post for my blog. Please visit his blog at Ethics Sage.)
KPMG Insider Trading Scandal Damages the Reputation of the Accounting Profession
What possesses an audit partner to trade on inside information and violate the accounting profession’s most sacred ethical standard of audit independence from one’s client? Is it carelessness, greed, or ethical blindness? In the case of Scott London, the former partner in charge of the KPMG’s Southern California’s regional audit practice, it was some of each that motivated him to violate ethical standards and, in the course of doing so, causing the audit opinions signed by London on Skechers and Herbalife to be withdrawn by the accounting firm.
This case has a local twist as pointed out by Stephen Nellis in his column “Deckers, PCBC were victims of auditor leaks” in the April 19-25 Pacific Coast Business Times. Nellis notes that two companies affected are Goleta-based Deckers and Pacific Capital Bancorp, the former parent of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust now part of Union Bank.
Overall, Shaw is charged with leaking confidential information to his friend, Brian Shaw, about Deckers, Pacific Capital Bancorp, Manhattan Beach-based Skechers, and Los Angeles-based Herbalife. The leak of information about quarterly earnings information led to Shaw’s unjust enrichment of $1.27 million. Shaw, a jewelry store owner and country club friend of London repaid London with $50,000 in cash and a Rolex watch, according to legal filings.
The leaking of financial information about a company to anyone prior to its public release affects the level playing field that should exist with respect to personal and business contacts of the leaker and the general public. It violates the fairness doctrine in treating equals, equally, and it violates basic integrity standards. The KPMG scandal concerns me because a pattern of such improprieties may be developing.
In 2010, Deloitte and Touche was investigated by the SEC for repeated insider trading by Thomas P. Flanagan, a former management advisory partner and a Vice Chairman at Deloitte. Flanagan traded in the securities of multiple Deloitte clients on the basis of inside information that he learned through his duties at the firm. The inside information concerned market moving events such as earnings results, revisions to earnings guidance, sales figures and cost cutting, and an acquisition. Flanagan’s illegal trading resulted in profits of more than $430,000. In the SEC action, Flanagan was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to securities fraud. Flanagan also tipped his son, Patrick, to certain of this material non-public information. Patrick then traded based on that information. His illegal trading resulted in profits of more than $57,000.
The KPMG case is a particularly egregious one because it involves insider trading by an auditor of client stock. This incident jogged my memory and I came up with a characterization of London’s actions as “stupid is as stupid does.”