Recently, the American Film Institute ranked the 100 top movie quotes of all time and broadcast the results in a prime-time show. The results were fairly predictable, featuring the usual suspects, such as, "I coulda been a contenda" and "Here's looking at you, kid."
At No. 12 was my personal favorite, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," from Francis Ford Coppola's classic Vietnam saga, Apocalypse Now. Last year, an additional 55 minutes, originally cut in 1979, was re-added to the film, and it now tacks on Redux at the end of its title.
The smell of regulatory napalm has been wafting from Big Four firm KPMG since February 2004, with the Department of Justice investigating tax services that were offered by the firm from 1996 to 2002. During a four-year period, the firm collected some $124 million in fees from the sale of questionable tax shelters, which were referred to by acronyms such as FLIP, BLIP and OPS. The government claimed that sales of such shelters by CPA and law firms siphoned billions from the coffers of the Treasury.
To its credit, KPMG took the high road by assuming full responsibility for its actions, and stated that it no longer offers those services and that the executives responsible were gone. Since then, the firm maintains that it has implemented structural, cultural and governance reforms.
Yet it's important to remember that, despite the massive mea culpa, the leadership of the firm during the period in question probably had a fair idea of what was going on and, by inference, gave its blessing to the tax shelter activities.
Although the changes and cultural shift are laudable, the firm is currently embroiled in tense negotiations with the Department of Justice over whether a criminal indictment is pending. Can somebody spell A-N-D-E-R-S-E-N?
The Securities and Exchange Commission, fearful of the collapse of another global firm, has been in discussions to try and circumvent another massive black eye to the auditing profession. KPMG's survival was probably not among the items that Christopher Cox, the man nominated by the president to succeed William Donaldson as SEC chair, wanted to address the minute he is confirmed. Ditto for new KPMG chairman and chief executive Timothy Flynn.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office produced a study about the dangers of a Big Three. And although the public accounting landscape in the U.S. boasts upwards of 46,000 firms, four of them currently audit something on the order of 80 percent of public companies.
If the firm were prosecuted and eventually put out of business, the logistics in terms of thousands of audit clients scrambling to engage a new independent accountant could be catastrophic. Of course, there's the small matter of civil litigation to consider, which could just as easily prompt legions of clients to voluntarily jump ship, as they did three years ago as Andersen was imploding.
It would probably serve little purpose to cause the downfall of another accounting firm, and certainly would not be a panacea in the battle against abusive tax shelters.
Make no mistake: KPMG will have to open its checkbook very wide and scribble in Uncle Sam as the payee. It will also most likely have to agree to additional supervision and compliance. But the pick here is that the firm will survive - and should. With deference to the late, great Bette Davis at AFI's No. 9, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."
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