JOHN C. BURTON, JR.
As senior partner of a modest accounting firm with a dozen publicly traded clients, I learned early on that the best resources for technical advice were the chief accountants of the Securities and Exchange Commission who were able, ready and willing to assist local practitioners.
In my view, the chief of all chief accountants was John C. "Sandy" Burton Jr.
Sandy Burton was born in 1932 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of John C. Burton Sr., who followed Arthur Young as managing partner of Arthur Young & Co., and the grandson of a minister in the Church of Scotland. Naturally, Sandy was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, loved Ebbets Field, and, as a college student, became assistant statistician for the Dodgers. When the Dodgers moved to California, team owner Walter O'Malley offered him the position of chief accountant of the Dodgers, which he did not accept.
He graduated from Haverford College in 1954 with a major in political science and received his MBA from Columbia University in 1956. Returning to Columbia University in 1960, as a Ford Foundation Fellow, he received his Ph.D degree.
In June 1972, he was appointed chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission. At a meeting of the California Society of CPAs in October 1972, he said, "My own view, and a strong one, is that one gets better protection from liability by moving forward to broaden the area of responsibility, rather than by trying to narrow or restrict it. Attempts to narrow liability run the risk that a court will force it upon you unexpectedly in a hard-fact situation, and it's apparent that the courts today are not willing to take a narrow view of the role of accountant."
"When you don't know something and you know you don't know it, you can't get into too much trouble," he said, "but when you think you know something and you don't know it, then you can get into big trouble, and accountants who think they can avoid responsibilities when they can't, could be a problem."
"I'm very optimistic about the future of the accounting profession," he continued. "I think it will meet its challenges, and I think in the years to come it will be viewed by the public as a vibrant force, serving the public interest in a manner profitable to both the profession's members and to the public."
Burton was deeply involved in increasing financial disclosure requirements, the development of enforcement activities, and the task of communicating SEC principles and philosophy to the accounting profession. Sandy Burton never hesitated to criticize pronouncements of the Accounting Principles Board, as well as the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which he did with logic, knowledge, muscle and wit. He once labeled a FASB proposal "poo-poo."
Upon completion of his term as chief accountant at the SEC in 1976, he was appointed deputy mayor for finance for the city of New York in a time of financial crisis. He became dean of the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University in 1982 and held that position until 1988.
In March 1973, as president of the New York State Society of CPAs, I asked Chief Accountant Burton if he would address a special meeting of the society, and he replied, "Of course, but would you do me a favor and invite my mother - she has never heard me speak." The Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton was packed with partners of the major firms, second-tier firms, local firms, the press and Mrs. John C. Burton Sr.
What a speech he delivered!
Why do I heap so much praise on Sandy Burton?
Is it because he is brilliant, courageous, innovative, literate, articulate, author of seven books and numerous articles, and possessed of a superb sense of humor? My answer: "Yes."
Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, and a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs.
For previous installments of "CPAs I have known," visit WebCPA.com.
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