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SEC accountant wary of audit firms' push into consulting

The headquarters of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are seen in Washington, July 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Securities and Exchange Commission's top accountant on Monday urged accounting firms to think carefully before acquiring non-audit related consulting businesses, warning such moves could damage their independence and credibility.

"I continue to observe the accounting firms are actively growing their consultancy practices," said SEC Chief Accountant Paul Beswick, at an AICPA conference in Washington, D.C.

"Such expansion runs the risk of damaging the accountant's reputation," he said.

Lured by consulting' s growth and with audit revenues flat in the developed world, major accounting groups have been moving back into consulting, reversing the previous trend.

The SEC has raised concerns about its potential for compromising audit firms' independence. Beswick's comments come nearly two months after PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world's Big Four audit firms, said it would buy consultancy Booz & Co.

Deloitte, another Big Four firm, has bought a slew of consulting firms, including energy consultants Altos Management Partners and AJM Petroleum Consultants. Rounding out the Big Four, KPMG and Ernst & Young have also made several consulting acquisitions in recent years.

The shopping spree marks a shift from past practice. The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley law - approved in the wake of accounting scandals at companies such as Enron Corp - prompted most big audit firms to back away from consulting.

Aiming to reduce potential conflicts of interest and bolster auditor independence, one part of that law prohibited accounting firms from doing consulting work for audit clients. The law left the door open for firms to continue providing tax services to audit clients and to offer consulting for non-audit clients.

Beswick said he was not trying to single out any one firm.

He noted he had reviewed press releases announcing large non-audit acquisitions by accounting firms over the past year, and compared those statements to announcements made a decade ago when firms sold off similar types of businesses.

"The public considers audit firms to be gatekeepers, not consultants," he said. "You earn the public's trust by improving audit quality ... I'm hopeful that my comments today will encourage reflection when firms are faced with decisions about growth."

The issue is expected to face further scrutiny by regulators in the coming year.

Public Company Accounting Oversight Board Chairman Jim Doty, speaking at the same conference on Monday, said expansion by auditors into consulting raises questions about audit quality and independence.

"We need roundtables and task force attention on the implications of the regeneration of non-audit consulting at the global firm," Doty said.

He told reporters on the sidelines of Monday's event he hopes to kick off discussions on the topic sometime in 2014.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bob Burgdorfer)