SEC Administrative Judge Censures Accounting Firms Over Failure To Produce Work For China-Based Companies

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On January 22, an SEC administrative law judge (ALJ) prohibited the Chinese affiliates of four major accounting firms from practicing or appearing before the SEC for six months for allegedly failing to turn over certain documents sought by the SEC. BDO China Dahua CPA Co., Ltd., Initial Decision Release No. 553, File Nos. 3-14872, 3-15116 (Jan. 2014). The SEC brought the case in December 2012, alleging that the companies violated the Securities Exchange Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires foreign public accounting firms to provide the SEC upon request with audit work papers involving any company trading on U.S. markets, by refusing to produce audit work papers and other documents related to China-based companies under investigation by the SEC for potential accounting fraud against U.S. investors. The ALJ’s decision centered on Sarbanes-Oxley section 106(e), which provides that a “willful refusal to comply . . . with any request by the Commission . . . under this section, shall be deemed a violation of this Act.” The ALJ rejected the firms’ interpretation of willful refusal to require evidence of bad faith or intent, and instead held that “willful refusal to comply” means choosing not to act in response to a request, without regard to good faith. The ALJ determined that each company received a constructive notice of a request pertaining to a client or former client, and willfully refused to comply. The ALJ added that the SEC was permitted to not allow alternate production of the requested materials, explaining that “[n]othing compels the [SEC] to use one avenue rather than another, and it should have discretion to seek documents in whatever fashion the law permits.”