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In Support of Public or Private Interests? An Examination of Sanctions Imposed Under the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct

Abstract

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) monitors the misconduct of its members using the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (CPC). To accomplish this task, the AICPA relies on various stakeholders to report known violations of its CPC. We examine the full population of sanctions imposed by the AICPA on its members under its CPC from 2008–2013 to identify recent trends in the misconduct of accounting professionals. While we find that multiple stakeholders identify and report violations, we also find that the most common types of violations remain consistent with those reported in the 1990s. Further, we develop a taxonomy based on prior accounting literature to determine whether the AICPA CPC is being enforced to defend the public interest and/or the private interests of the accounting profession. In contrast to prior studies, our results suggest that as the accounting profession emerges from a recession and period of intense public scrutiny, the AICPA CPC is largely being enforced to defend the public interest. This public interest focus was most pronounced during the recessionary years of 2008–2010, as evident from misconduct reported by parties such as the Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, and state boards of accountancy. Although key stakeholders have recently focused on reporting misconduct that threatens the public interest, we believe there are still areas in need of improvement, especially around the level of detail provided in the AICPA’s sanction records. We propose some possible solutions to improve public transparency.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We utilize the term code of professional conduct throughout the paper. This term is synonymous with terminology used in previous research such as code of ethics and code of conduct.

  2. 2.

    Known violations of the AICPA CPC can result in (1) the disposition of a case or (2) member disciplinary sanctioning. Three types of disciplinary sanctions may be imposed on members: termination (expulsion), suspension, or admonishment (AICPA 2013a).

  3. 3.

    While state CPA societies (or equivalent) can be considered parties that exist within “jurisdictions,” we do not find evidence that state CPA societies reported misconduct to the AICPA from 2008 to 2013. Rather, state CPA societies appear in our study given their work with the AICPA’s Professional Ethics Executive Committee (PEEC) to investigate reports of misconduct as part of the Joint Ethics Enforcement Program. There were 31 such investigations identified in our study.

  4. 4.

    The AICPA may become aware of member misconduct by the direct reporting of a jurisdiction or entity, or may become aware through less formal means such as by reviewing state board publications, enforcement releases (from entities), and news articles (among others). For expositional purposes, we refer to the AICPA’s collective record of member misconduct as being composed of violations “reported” by a jurisdiction or entity.

  5. 5.

    As written, many of the AICPA CPC rules and bylaws address matters that could be interpreted as having a public, private, or dual interest focus. We recognize this duality in a number of rules and bylaws examined in this study, but base our taxonomy on prior research that clarifies the CPC topics primarily accepted as protecting the public or private interest. Any recharacterization of public and private interests from our taxonomy could change the results of this study.

  6. 6.

    From a monitoring perspective, the PCAOB largely oversees “registered public accounting firms and persons associated with those firms” and makes enforcement actions against these parties publicly available on the Enforcement section of its website (PCAOB 2016b).

  7. 7.

    CPAs are only required to maintain an active license with the board of accountancy in the state they wish to practice and must follow the rules of the respective state board. State boards of accountancy (or equivalent) typically require an initial course in ethics or professional standards for CPA licensure. These courses might focus on state-specific rules and professional standards, and might also reference the AICPA CPC. Further, state boards also have continuing professional education (CPE) requirements that include periodic training in ethics or professional standards (the frequency and focus of this CPE is state-specific). If such requirements are not met, state boards have the legal authority to withhold or revoke CPA licenses.

  8. 8.

    Legislation such as the Uniform Accountancy Act encourage use of the AICPA CPC as the standard against which to measure CPAs in the U.S. (AICPA 2014c), making it a useful benchmark for studying the conduct of accountants.

  9. 9.

    Badawi (2002) does not provide an explanation for the differences among the four papers. We believe the major reason for the findings is the slightly different time period examined and the varying levels of detail of data analysis.

  10. 10.

    Davenport and Dellaportas (2009) surveyed members of CPA Australia and found that respondents could “iterate the meaning of the expression and how to serve the public interest in a way that is consistent with the formal definition” (p. 20). Even so, the authors found in conflict of interest situations, respondents often favored the interests of themselves, clients, or employers before third parties.

  11. 11.

    The three events examined in Canning and O’Dwyer (2003) include (1) the illegal use of tax avoidance schemes by the Irish beef processing industry, (2) payments to politicians, and (3) the Dial (Irish Parliament) Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into nonpayment of deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) on bank deposit accounts.

  12. 12.

    We acknowledge that the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, but evidence suggests the effects lingered well into 2010 (perhaps further) (Simpson Simpson 2010). As such, for analysis purposes, we are able to equally divide the years in our dataset into recessionary and post-recessionary periods.

  13. 13.

    The October 2013 report was the last of the quarterly compilations available for calendar year 2013.

  14. 14.

    Similarly, the AICPA recognizes 55 independent CPA societies across these same states/territories (AICPA 2013c).

  15. 15.

    The two other state-level divisions referred to here are the New York State Education Department (reported two violations in our dataset) and the State of Washington Department of Financial Institutions Securities Division (reported one violation in our dataset).

  16. 16.

    Information at the state-level on member violations and resulting sanctions is generally not publicly available. Instead, we must rely on state-level violation and sanction information accumulated by the AICPA.

  17. 17.

    Access to the AICPA Disciplinary Actions website is available at: http://www.aicpa.org/FORTHEPUBLIC/DISCIPLINARYACTIONS/Pages/default.aspx.

  18. 18.

    At the time, we obtained our data from the AICPA the posting period had expired for most suspensions and admonishments, as well as for many terminations. As such, the population of sanctions was provided without the specific identities of those individuals punished. Due to this constraint, we could not perform more detailed analyses on who specifically was sanctioned (e.g., partners of Big-4 versus smaller public accounting firms).

  19. 19.

    Shaver (1993) writes that common tests of statistical significance (i.e., z ratios, t ratios, and F ratios) are “procedures for determining the probability (usually at a prespecified level called alpha) of a particular result, assuming the null hypothesis to be true, given randomization and a sample size of n” (p. 294). Glass et al. (1981) make a similar point that classical theory of statistical inference assumes “the definition of a population and rigorous sampling from it” (p. 199). Inferential statistics therefore rely on a probabilistic (i.e., random) sample drawn from a defined population, and this sample is then analyzed so as to make generalizations about the population (Glass et al. 1981; Glass and Hopkins 1984; Shaver 1993; Salkind 2006; Wooldridge 2009; Montgomery 2013). Such an approach is not necessary in our study given (1) the nature of our research questions and (2) the fact that we analyze a complete population of AICPA sanctions for a defined period of time.

  20. 20.

    New Jersey reported the results for an audit of practitioner continuing professional education (CPE) compliance during 2013. This included 146 disciplinary sanctions for violations related to CPE requirements, impacting members residing in numerous jurisdictions (per the AICPA address of record). These 146 instances of noncompliance are excluded from our study as they represent the specific, targeted enforcement actions of one jurisdiction. This type of enforcement action is a one-time shock that does not recur in any other entity or jurisdiction in our dataset.

  21. 21.

    We utilize a PABAK instead of a kappa coefficient because we have a very high prevalence of given responses. In such cases, the result is a low kappa coefficient when in actuality there is a high-observed proportion of agreement between the coders. This phenomenon is known as the kappa paradox (Feinstein and Cicchetti 1990). Interpretation based solely on such a kappa coefficient can be misleading. In such cases, it is customary to report the overall agreement to supplement Kappa, as well as to calculate PABAK. Although our Kappa was 0.43, our overall agreement was 93.62 %. Those analyses taken together, and utilizing the guidelines set by Landis and Koch (1977), we believe we have almost perfect agreement for our PABAK of 0.83.

  22. 22.

    If an AICPA CPC rule or bylaw was explicitly named in the original sanction, we did not further hand code the violation. Also, in some instances, the sanction descriptions appeared to describe multiple rules/bylaws, and in these cases, we hand coded the applicable rules/bylaws for completeness purposes. This is consistent with a number of the original entries referencing multiple rules/bylaws as part of a single incident.

  23. 23.

    The increase in violations shown in 1992 may be due, in part, to major revisions of the Uniform Accountancy Act (UAA) that same year. This legislation was intended to replace existing public accounting laws and sought more uniform treatment of accountants under state laws (Kirch and Tarantino 1993). One of the issues discussed in the UAA is an increased awareness among different jurisdictions on having practitioners of “good moral character” and specific discussions around violations and sanctions that could be enforced when public accountants do not exhibit such good moral character (AICPA 2014c).

  24. 24.

    CPC violations may be reported to the AICPA by either entities or jurisdictions, or both. During the 2008–2013 period, this double reporting occurred for 43 of the 590 disciplinary sanctions in our dataset. See Table 4 for details.

  25. 25.

    When we state an entity or jurisdiction “reported violations” to the AICPA, we are speaking broadly about the party that originally records a violation that leads to disciplinary sanctions. Therefore, when discussing the AICPA reporting of violations, this does not mean the AICPA reports to itself, but rather the AICPA was the first to record the member violation that ultimately resulted in disciplinary sanctions under the CPC.

  26. 26.

    The PCAOB was created in §101 (a) of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, and many of the violations reported by the PCAOB in our dataset deal with adherence to its own Auditing Standards that are used for audits of public companies. Further, the accounting scandals leading up to the passage of SOX diminished the public’s trust in corporations and the information they disclose, and the SEC is responsible for regulating the sharing of this information (financial and other) with the public. Specifically, public companies in the U.S. must submit audited financial statements to the SEC in order to be listed on public stock exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange. As such, it is reasonable to expect the SEC assumed a more active role in monitoring both (1) the information disclosed by public companies in the years following SOX and (2) the people responsible for generating and reporting such information.

  27. 27.

    As previously discussed, our analyses focus on violations reported to the AICPA that relate to its CPC, and we do not examine whether the AICPA CPC is designed to protect the public or private interest. Rather, the violations we study are those that stakeholders have chosen to report and we show how such violations map to and are sanctioned under the AICPA CPC.

  28. 28.

    Termination is not necessarily a permanent expulsion from the AICPA. Bylaw 750, Reinstatement, allows terminated members to apply for reinstatement three years after the effective date of termination (AICPA 2011). If not reinstated, the member can reapply two years after the date of denial (AICPA 2011).

  29. 29.

    While a variety of factors likely contributed to the increase in jurisdiction reporting in the post-recessionary period, it is possible that state boards of accountancy regained certain resources (i.e., financial and operational) once the recession passed. Resources that may not have been mission critical during the recessionary years may have thereafter been recouped and dedicated to activities such as monitoring the conduct of accounting professionals. We tested this proposition and ran a correlation of the change in state government spending (used to proxy for the change in state board of accountancy spending on enforcement activities) to the change in number of violations reported by state boards during our testing period. The resulting correlation is r = 0.089 with p = 0.162 (two-tailed), which provides limited evidence that changes in enforcement activity are related to changes in spending.

  30. 30.

    As described previously, CPC violations may be reported to the AICPA by either entities or jurisdictions, or both. During the 2008–2013 period, this double reporting occurred for 43 of the 590 disciplinary sanctions in our dataset. See Table 4 for details.

  31. 31.

    The referenced AICPA Professional Ethics Division reports can be found at: http://www.aicpa.org/interestareas/professionalethics/resources/ethicsenforcement/pages/default.aspx.

Abbreviations

AICPA:

American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

CPC:

Code of Professional Conduct

CPE:

Continuing professional education

DOL:

Department of Labor

IRS:

Internal Revenue Service

NASBA:

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy

PABAK:

Prevalence adjusted bias adjusted kappa

PCAOB:

Public Company Accounting Oversight Board

PEEC:

Professional Ethics Executive Committee

SEC:

Securities and Exchange Commission

SOX:

Sarbanes–Oxley Act

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Correspondence to Velina Popova.

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Data availability: Data used in this study are available upon request and by permission granted by the AICPA.

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Jenkins, J.G., Popova, V. & Sheldon, M.D. In Support of Public or Private Interests? An Examination of Sanctions Imposed Under the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. J Bus Ethics 152, 523–549 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3308-2

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Keywords

  • AICPA Code of Professional Conduct
  • CPA sanctions
  • CPA violations
  • Monitoring of CPA conduct
  • Private interests
  • Public interests
  • Rules and bylaws