New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s December 21, 2010 filing of a civil fraud lawsuit against Ernst & Young in connection with the audit firm’s services to Lehman Brothers has captured headlines in business pages around the world. The complaint itself, which can be found here, raises some serious allegations. But the complaint also raises a number of interesting questions, as discussed below. The NYAG’s December 21, 2010 press release about the lawsuit can be found here.
The 32-page complaint alleges that between 2001 and September 2008, E&Y "facilitated" Lehman Brothers’ "massive accounting fraud." The complaint alleges that during that period E&Y earned over $150 million in compensation from Lehman, which allegedly was one of E&Y’s largest clients.
The complaint alleges that Lehman manipulated its balance sheet through quarter-end sales of billions of dollars of fixed-income securities to European banks, with the express understanding that the Lehman would repurchase the securities days later. Lehman’s use of these transactions, know as Repo 105 transactions, allowed Lehman to mask its balance sheet leverage. The scale of these transactions grew as Lehman’s financial condition deteriorated in 2007 and 2008.
The complaint alleges that E&Y was aware of Lehman’s use of these transactions, yet approved Lehman’s use of financial statements that did not disclose the existence of the transactions or their effect on Lehman’s balance sheet. These actions, the complaint alleges, "directly facilitated a major accounting fraud, and helped mislead the public."
The complaint alleges that these actions by E&Y violated New York’s Martin Act. The complaint seeks to compel E&Y to repay the fees it earned from Lehman as well as investor damages.
There are a number of very interesting things about the NYAG’s complaint against E&Y.
The first is that the only defendant in the lawsuit is E&Y itself. There are no other individuals or entities names as defendants.
On the one hand, it is hardly a surprise that a governmental authority has decided to pursue a regulatory claim against E&Y, in light of the March 2010 report by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas (about which refer here). In his report, Valukas had concluded "there are colorable claims" against E&Y for its "failure to question and challenge improper or inadequate disclosures." Given the bankruptcy examiner’s conclusions it seemed probable that there might eventually be some kind of regulatory action taken against E&Y.
On the other hand, the bankruptcy examiner’s report not only concluded that there are "colorable claims" against E&Y, but also concluded that there are "colorable claims" against the senior Lehman officials who "oversaw and certified the misleading financial statements," including Lehman’s CEO Richard Fuld and its CFOs, Christopher O’Meara, Erin Callan and Ian Lowitt. Moreover, the NYAG’s complaint expressly refers to other financial executives at Lehman who were involved in the company’s use of the Repo 105 transactions.
The NYAG’s complaint does not name any of these individuals as defendants. Indeed, one of the very curious aspects about the NYAG’s complaint is that it is virtually silent about the role or involvement of the most senior Lehman officials in the Repo 105 transaction; the individuals referred to by name in the complaint are by and large not the most senior executives.
And just as the complaint names no Lehman executives as defendants, the complaint also names no E&Y-related individuals as defendants. The sole defendant is E&Y itself, even though the individual E&Y audit partners responsible for Lehman’s audit and financial reporting are identified by name in the NYAG complaint. Yet it is the audit firm itself that is named as defendant, not the individuals.
The complaint’s firm-level focus is all the more interesting as allegations in the complaint do not seem to suggest that the decision to allow Lehman the accounting treatment it received was made at a firm-wide level or that anyone at E&Y other than the specific individual audit partners were aware of Lehman’s use and reporting of the Repo 105 transactions.
Setting aside the question of who been sued, there is also the question of the timing of the filing of this complaint. The complaint was filed by New York’s departing AG, Andrew Cuomo, who is just days away from taking up his duties as New York’s incoming Governor. Of course, it was his deputies and assistants who prepared and filed the complaint, but the timing of their actions means that this case will shortly become the responsibility of the incoming NYAG Eric Schneiderman.
Given that the incoming AG will be responsible for the case, it seems odd that he was not allowed control over its filing. On the other hand, under the heading of media relations, it may not be surprising that the outgoing AG wanted to make sure that everybody knew this complaint was filed on his watch.
Another question that combines these questions of targets and timing is the question of sequencing. The sequencing issue has two aspects – the first is why the NYAG has proceeded first against E&Y without at the same time or first going against any company officials. The second issue is the question of why the NYAG’s office is proceeding forward in advance of any action by the federal regulators.
The NYAG may be proceeding first against E&Y for tactical reasons, as a way to secure a settlement and/or the firm’s cooperation in connection with a later action against the corporate officials. Peter Lattman reported on December 20, 2010 on the Dealbook blog (here) that E&Y and the NYAG’s office have been in settlement negotiations. The complaint may simply represent negotiations in another form.
As for the NYAG’s moves ahead of the federal regulators, Lattman speculates that the action may in fact spur the SEC or the DoJ to act – which may or may not have been an intended consequence of the move.
But the most interesting question of all is – what will happen next? Will E&Y reach a settlement with the incoming NYAG? Will the NYAG file a separate action against senior Lehman officials? Will the SEC or the DoJ now take action, either against E&Y or former Lehman officials?
Whatever else might be said about the NYAG’s complaint, its very presence begs the question why there has yet been no federal regulatory action related to Lehman, a question further highlighted by the bankruptcy examiner’s report. My own view of the reason the federal regulators have not yet acted is that they know all too well that the Lehman collapse is the highest profile event related to the credit crisis.
Given that high profile, they know they can’t take any chance that their Lehman-related enforcement actions might fail. The unacceptable consequences (to the federal regulators) of a failed regulatory action are compelling them to build the most durable case they think they can construct before proceeding. I still think it is a question of when, nor if, the federal regulators will initiate their own Lehman-related enforcement actions.
Assuming for the sake of argument that the federal regulators will eventually launch their own Lehman action, it will be interesting to see if the federal action will target E&Y. Francine McKenna suggests on her Accounting Watchdog blog on the Forbes website (here), that when it comes to pursuing the accountants, the feds are all too happy to have the NYAG do the "dirty work."
For the record, I disagree with the media voices trying to suggest this is the "beginning of the end" of E&Y. This is not a criminal case of the kind that killed Arthur Anderson. This is a civil action. E&Y has taken a massive reputational hit and it likely will have to pay substantial amounts to extricate itself from this case. But the firm’s continued existence is in no danger from this case.
Susan Beck has an interesting December 21, 2010 article on the Am Law Litigation Daily (here) about the defenses that E&Y has raised to similar allegations in investor litigation relating to the Lehman collapse.
"Year in Review" Webcast: On December 29, 2010 at 1 p.m. I will be participating in a free webcast sponsored by the Securities Docket, entitled "2010 Year in Review: Securities Enforcement, Litigation & Compliance."
The panel, which will include Compliance Week editor Matt Kelly, Francine McKenna (re: The Auditors) , Mike Koehler (aka the "FCPA Professor"), Francis Pileggi (Delaware corporate law guru), Tracy Coenen (The Fraud Files), Lyle Roberts (The 10b-5 Daily) and Securities Docket’s Bruce Carton, will look back at 2010′s most significant events and trends in the areas of corporate compliance, auditor issues, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Delaware corporate law, D&O insurance issues, white collar fraud issues, securities class actions and SEC enforcement.
For further information and to register, please visit the Securities Docket webinsar webpage, here.
Season’s Greetings: Over the next few days, The D&O Diary will be taking a short holiday break. We will resume our normal publication schedule after the New Year. In the meantime, we would like to thank everyone for their support this past year and wish everyone a healthy and happy holiday season.
As our final holiday gesture, we would like to share this video (which has quickly gone viral) of the flash-mob-in-the-mall performance of The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Apparently the flash mob performance of this work has become quite the phenomenon this holiday season, to the point that a Sacramento choir’s December 20, 2010 attempt to stage its own flash mob scene resulted in a mall’s closure, as reported here.
Fortunately, the performance in this video reflects a more peaceful scene. Happy Holidays.