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SEC Investigates Ernst & Young for Bid Rigging

Accounting reform occurred after significant corporate misconduct was discovered in the early 1980s. Some of the reform sought to require public companies to put the hiring and pay of their auditors in the hands of an independent audit board committee. There has been concern that management still has significant influence on the evaluation and final decisions. Phillip Lamoreaux, an accounting professor at Arizona State University, conducted a study of more than 2,000 auditor changes in publicly traded companies. He found that companies whose top executives had worked with a Big Four accounting firm were twice as likely to select that firm. Many executives make their way into corporate America through the largest accounting firms in the world. A chief accountant in the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) stated that auditor independence is "critical to the integrity of the whole process."

Currently, a criminal investigation of Ernst & Young LLP (EY) is underway related to allegations of so-called bid rigging. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), bid rigging is an unethical process which can be illegal. When soliciting competitive bids from potential auditors, competitors should not be allowed to coordinate or collaborate their bidding strategy based on information shared with other bidders. Some examples include taking turns being the low bidder, sitting out of the bidding process, and providing high bids to cover up the bid rigging process. As the above study noted, close ties with accounting firms by company executives can eliminate objectivity in selection decisions. William Stiehl and Carol Lowe were top executives at Sealed Air, a bubble wrap manufacturer in 2015 when they appointed EY as their auditor. Previously, the two were top executives at Carlisle Cos. when EY was selected as auditor. The SEC and North Carolina prosecutors are looking into whether bid rigging occurred through Stiehl sharing KPMG's bid with EY to help them win the auditing contract. Sealed Air fired Stiehl, terminated their relationship with EY, and hired PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The reason for the termination of EY by Sealed Air was a result of "dissatisfaction with information it learned about the process by which EY was selected as auditor."

Over the last twenty years, the SEC has taken roughly 100 enforcement actions for not supporting auditor independence guidelines and mandates. Of those investigated, very few dealt with corporate senior management. Both Lowe and Stiehl worked with EY as their auditors in three separate companies. EY released a statement saying, "...our clients value the quality of our work and if they move to a different company, they hire us again."


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