We have long advocated “good” transparency in financial reporting that promotes the recipients’ understanding and trust. Alas, we recently encountered some public communications that display “bad” transparency, in the sense that we readily grasped the senders’ hidden agenda and ulterior motives. We’re reminded of the ubiquitous phishing e-mail from a widow allegedly seeking help in getting a million dollars out of her country. Most people quickly delete that message because the hoax is so transparent.

Our premise is that senders’ decisions to create good or bad transparency reflect their integrity, or lack thereof.

 

A CASE IN POINT

An American Institute of CPAs news release of Nov. 2, 2015 (“AICPA, CIMA propose deeper partnership”) and a linked Web site summarize a proposal to establish a new “Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.” (Remember that name.) They go on to explain that all members of the institute and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants would automatically be made members of that association.

The release claims the new entity will drive “enhanced support for and promotion of both public and management accounting.” This vague something-for-everyone promise immediately made us suspect a case of bad transparency. Our suspicion was confirmed when we read that this arrangement, like any merger, would involve “integrating operations, strategy and management.” Our opinion was cemented by this unctuous pledge: “The AICPA would continue to focus efforts on keeping the CPA strong in the U.S.”

We’re convinced we cannot trust a word of this announcement. Instead, we perceive the real goal is an empire that benefits a few but certainly not the vast majority of AICPA members. We also think that closely affiliating CPAs with others who lack that credential will cheapen their hard-earned and highly respected professional reputations. Further, we don’t see how CIMA’s members would benefit from being swallowed up by the institute.

 

GOOD AND BAD NEWS

The good news is this merger can be implemented only with AICPA members’ approval.

The bad news is that the AICPA Elite seem to think they’ve produced a great idea. The worse news is they’re spinning like crazy to make it sound appealing. The worst news is that, in our opinion, those who conjured the proposal and fabricated the transparent promotional campaign are risking their integrity for a shot at greater status and power for themselves.

Our words are strong, but we’re speaking from past experience.

 

BETTER THAN NOSTRADAMUS?

Four years ago, shortly after the same people announced the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation, we condemned it as merely a stealthy set up for merging the AICPA and CIMA. (“CGMA ploy brings Cognitors back as CoGMAtors; Is AICPA 2.0 next?”, March 2012.)

This new proposal makes us look better than Nostradamus.

However, we’re not patting ourselves on the back. Our aim is to discredit both the badly transparent communications and the motives of those who produced them. We’ll explain our points with several lightly edited excerpts from that column.

 

THE AICPA ELITE

These paragraphs explain a term we used above:

“We begin by explaining our previous ambiguous references to AICPA ‘management.’ We used that word instead of ‘leaders’ because leaders take followers to good places. However, a reader suggested that ‘management’ implies only AICPA employees.

“To clarify, we criticize all who create and implement the institute’s policies, including the CEO and other officers, current and former chairmen, board members, and Council members, as well as others with informal power, such as large accounting firm CEOs and some state society directors.

“We’ll now refer to them collectively as the ‘AICPA Elite.’”

If we’re right, thank goodness members can send a clear message by voting to stop this ill-conceived plan.

 

THE COGNITOR DEBACLE

We also showed in 2012 that the CGMA program has essentially the same flawed objective as a years-earlier effort to expand the AICPA headcount by admitting new members who don’t hold a CPA certificate:

“In 1999, four years into the era of current CEO Barry Melancon, the Elite worried the number of members was flattening, not grasping that they may have made the AICPA less relevant to many CPAs. Because they were, we think, primarily concerned that the revenue gravy train was drying up, it seems their main goals were more members, dues and fees.

“To boost revenue, they hatched the idea of adding non-CPAs, including information technologists and attorneys. Resistance from members was strong. After all, if it’s the American Institute of CPAs, why admit people who aren’t CPAs? They tried to sell the idea by saying these people and all existing institute members would be turned into ‘Cognitors.’ … When put to a vote, the outcome was a crushing defeat that conveyed no confidence in the Elite.”

Apparently, it wasn’t crushing enough because they’re back a third time with the same one-trick pony, a fact that justifies defining the issue on the coming ballot as a vote of confidence in the Elite’s integrity.

 

THE CGMA PLOY

This passage shows their current ulterior motive is just as obvious as it was in 1999 and 2012:

“The Elite seems to be once more hunting for new funds … . Despite being burned the first time, they’re trying again, hoping no one remembers the Cognitor fiasco. To their consternation, we and others do.

“Where are they now looking for new members? Turns out it’s management accountants outside the U.S., and they’ve gained access to them through a joint venture with CIMA.

“On its part, the Elite decided in 2011 (without a vote) to endow a great many AICPA members with a new designation, ‘Chartered Global Management Accountant.’ In return, CIMA authorized its existing ‘Chartered Management Accountants’ to hold themselves out as CGMAs.”

Without explaining the whole truth, a related October 2015 release from the AICPA disingenuously claims that 150,000 CGMAs exist worldwide. We understand that only 40,000 or so are AICPA members who paid for the designation without being tested. By citing only the larger aggregate number, the Elite buried the crucial fact that essentially 90 percent of institute members declined multiple invitations to become CGMAs.

Bad transparency is also evident because the release doesn’t explain that the remaining CGMAs are CIMA members who were Chartered Management Accountants until their own Elite converted them to CGMAs despite strong objections from many.

 

OUR 2012 PROPHECY

Here’s our 2012 prophecy:

“Why would the Elite run the risk of foisting this CGMA boondoggle on institute members? We’re persuaded they have an ulterior motive that runs much deeper than desperation for revenues. Specifically, we’re certain beyond doubt that this gambit is the initial phase of a back-door maneuver to transform the AICPA into an international empire with the Elite on top of the organization chart.

“Here’s the smoking gun evidence: When the institute and CIMA originally formed their joint venture in 2011, they called it the ‘Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.’

“Are those familiar initials an accidental coincidence? No way.

“We dub this joint venture ‘AICPA 2.0’ and anticipate that if and when the Elite conclude the CGMA is established as legitimate, they will launch another public relations blitz to get members of AICPA 1.0 to approve changing its name and extending membership to (guess who?) all those 100,000 or so new CGMAs gratuitously created by CIMA.

“We hope we’re wrong but we’re irrevocably convinced this stealthy strategy is for real. If so, the Elite is undermining the integrity and distinction of being a Certified Public Accountant, not by accident, and not for any good purpose.”

Despite our clear warning from four years ago and the fact that nine out of 10 AICPA members reject the Elite’s claims that it’s cool to be a CGMA, they’re pressing ahead with their questionable plan.

Therefore, we hope a “No” vote will send them a resounding message to stand down.

 

MEMBERS’ NOT-TO-DO LIST

In 2012, we proposed a five-item not-to-do list for members who understood the CGMA plan was detrimental to their profession’s integrity. We’ve culled it to these two:

“Do NOT resign your AICPA membership. Although you may be thoroughly repelled, the institute needs as many principled members as possible to vote this scheme down.

“Do NOT vote to change the institute’s name or to open membership to non-CPAs. Doing so will degrade the profession and your personal reputation as well.”

Knowing they need an affirming vote, the Elite’s November release said: “Throughout the fall and into early 2016, AICPA will be talking with members about the proposal and what it would mean for all stakeholders, Melancon said. If that dialogue is positive a ballot initiative could occur in late spring 2016.”

Hello! Did you notice they expect members to study this issue during the busy season? Although we anticipate a lame excuse blaming the CIMA for that timing, we’re convinced the Elite hopes many members won’t look at the proposal. Perhaps they’re also hoping many won’t actually vote because the measure would pass with approval from two-thirds of the returned ballots, not two-thirds of the membership.

 

THE REAL ISSUE

We assert that the real issue concerns two dimensions of integrity.

The first is the integrity of the CPA credential. Turning the AICPA into a hodgepodge of CPAs and others will substantially diminish the license’s long-established and highly esteemed distinction. We note that the Elite has already shown less respect for CPAs who aren’t CGMAs by repeatedly implying they’re less qualified.

Of course, their putdown of the steadfast 90 percent is unfounded. There’s nothing wrong with being “just” a CPA because that credential is honored everywhere, including our academic circles. It seems clear, AICPA members, the Elite wants you to believe something negative about yourself that simply isn’t true.

To the contrary, and reiterating our analysis in 2012, all who become CGMAs actually tarnish their résumés by declaring they’re willing to act as if they’ve done something special even though they took the easy route of buying a label instead of passing the Institute of Management Accounting’s Certified Management Accountant exam.

We introduce the second dimension of integrity by asking whether these people should be running your institute. Do they seem to you to be ethical, straightforward and transparent in the good way? What do their actions reveal about what they think of you?

We believe AICPA members should view the upcoming merger vote as nothing short of a referendum on their confidence in the institute’s management. Thus, the real issue asks: “Do you fully trust the Elite to protect and promote your best interests?”

We close by suggesting that voting “Yes” to create AICPA 2.0 would be equivalent to sending your checking account number to a Nigerian bank and expecting to receive a fortune. Please, just delete the Elite’s phishing e-mails and vote “No!”

Paul B. W. Miller is an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Paul R. Bahnson is a professor at Boise State University. The authors’ views are not necessarily those of their institutions or Accounting Today. E-mail them at paulandpaul@qfr.biz.

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