Those expecting (or hoping) that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board would unearth scathing details about the evil underworld of the Big Four firms in its inaugural reports on its inspections were probably disappointed.

That's because the long-awaited reports, revealed last week, were accompanied by politically correct remarks about the board's confidence in the behemoths of the audit world and caveats about the limits of its initial inspection process. Well, what else did you expect?

The fact that the PCAOB didn't publicly blame the Big Four for all that is wrong in the audit world will undoubtedly draw some grumbles from that contingent of the profession that is unwaveringly convinced that the Big Four are indeed to blame for all that is less-than-kosher in the accounting universe. For those in need of a reality check, that isn't the board's mission.

Let's remember, the 2003 inspections were limited, and the board, which hasn't even reached its second birthday yet, was hardly running at full capacity when those inspections were done between June and December 2003.

And the board did take on this monstrous task from scratch. Since the inspection process is entirely new for everyone, in the early stages at least, it's probably more important for the board get the process right than to come out swinging.

As we were advised when the PCAOB issued the preliminary inspection reports in late June, the focus of these inspections was a baseline assessment of the firms' internal systems of quality control over auditing. In its first go-round, the board only looked at 16 audit engagements at each firm -- hardly a valid statistical sample with which to level any truly severe criticism.

That said, the barrage of comments about how the reports' emphasis on criticisms don't reflect "any broad negative assessment" of the firms' audit practices and about how the board is "encouraged by the firms' demonstrably cooperative attitude toward our inspections," do sound a bit Pollyanna. But then, maybe the caveat that the inspections aren't supposed to serve as a grading system to measure one firm against another is necessary in light of the fact that one of the first questions a member of the press asked of the board during the conference call on the inspections was which of the four firms was the worst offender?

It's not as if the Big Four came out sounding squeaky clean. Among their offenses: failing to catch or failing to appropriately address misapplications of generally accepted accounting principles by audit clients -- in particular, a failure to catch a misapplication by issuers of an Emerging Issues Task Force pronouncement related to the classification of long-term debt that in many cases resulted in restatements -- and departing from either PCAOB standards or the firm's own quality control policies.

But even without the downplaying of their transgressions, we wouldn't have seen the worst of the Big Four's offenses, since the public isn't privy to aspects of the reports that deal with findings that are related to certain quality control issues, such as independence issues, or to aspects concerning investigations, disciplinary proceedings or other enforcement actions that may have been undertaken as a result of the inspections. Whether you agree with the process or not, that's the process. And even with that caveat, it's a lot more than we learned from the old peer review system.

Besides, it isn't worth getting too hung up on what was -- or wasn't -- in the 2003 reports. They were practically history before they became public. The 2004 full inspections of the Big Four and the four other firms that audit more than 100 public companies (Grant Thornton, BDO Seidman, Crowe Chizek & Co. and McGladrey & Pullen) are well underway and should be complete around November.

This year's check ups will be more thorough, and we won't have to wait as long to see the results. While he didn't specify exactly how quick the turnaround would be, PCAOB Chairman William McDonough assured reporters that the next batch wouldn't take as long to become public. And this time around, the board is reviewing roughly 5 percent of the Big Four firms' audits (more than 500 audits) and 15 percent (about 150) of the next four largest firms' public company audits. Stay tuned.

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