Imagine, if you would, the 32 clubs that comprise the National Football League making a vow not to pursue that speedy All-Pro wide receiver or mammoth defensive lineman -- both of whom have just become free agents.For those of us familiar with the altruistic and modest nature of professional athletes --like talking about themselves in the third person -- and the organizations they represent, that thought would be unfathomable, if not laughable.

Yet, according to reports, a similar scenario is unfolding within the three largest audit firms.

Rivals Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young have reportedly ordered their partners not to steal any of troubled Big Four firm KPMG's more than 1,000 clients or 1,600 partners as it battles its way out of a regulatory quagmire for its part in marketing aggressive tax shelters.

Apparently fearful of an Arthur Andersen redux, the firms have mulled the potential of another global firm collapsing and the subsequent effects it would have on the profession. Sort of the 'hang together rather than hang separately' credo.

But their unexpected show of solidarity may be unnecessary.

KPMG is said to be near an expensive settlement with Uncle Sam in order to sidestep an indictment for its part in the fire sales of tax shelters.

Depending on which report you read or believe, the Big Four firm will have to write a check on the order of $300 million to $500 million and most likely agree to have an independent panel monitor its activities for an agreed-on period of time.

If enacted, the settlement would end the protracted battle between the firm and regulators over the sale of the shelters, which added some $124 million in fees to KPMG's coffers between 1997 and 2001.

Now, much has been written about the apocalypse that would ensue should another global firm become a mere footnote in the annals of accounting history, not the least of which is an even more compressed roster of auditors for the country's top-tier companies.

Last week, by coincidence, I received my annual copy of "Who Audits America" a hulking directory of publicly traded companies and who audits them. It lists General Electric, Citigroup, Home Depot and Pfizer among KPMG's audit clients -- all marquee names, to be sure.

And in the midst of temptation, it would be laudable should KPMG's audit firm rivals remain steadfast in their pledge not to poach from the partner or elite client roster.

But if audit partners at the other firms suddenly begin talking about themselves in the third person, we may have a problem.

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