Thursday 18th April 2019
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The names of the auditors of Fuji Xerox’s New Zealand subsidiary remain suppressed after an appeal hearing against a decision by an accountants’ disciplinary tribunal.
The disciplinary tribunal of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants had censured the accountant who led Fuji Xerox’s audit team, suspended him from practicing for 12 months and ordered him to pay the tribunal’s costs.
NZICA’s Appeals Council has reserved its decision on whether to lift name suppression of both the accountant and his firm, but has said that if it does decide to lift suppression, it will give the accountant a 14-day grace period in which to tell his family about the proceedings.
However, the council has lifted suppression of the name of the company concerned.
The accountant, who had been in charge of a team which audited Fuji Xerox’s New Zealand subsidiary between 2002 and 2016, had pleaded guilty to “negligence or incompetence in a professional capacity and that has been of such a degree it tends to bring the profession into disrepute” after a hearing last November.
Much of the appeal hearing, which was open to the media, hinged on whether the accountant had made an error of judgement and on whether his offence was sufficiently serious as to warrant both a 12-month suspension and publication of his name.
The accountant’s barrister, Harry Waalkens, QC, said repeatedly that an error of professional judgement was at the root of the case.
The disciplinary tribunal had been “completely wrong” to order publication of the names of the accountant and his firm because the accountant’s offending had not been as serious as, say, theft, Waalkens had argued.
He cited “observations in their own decision that make it as clear as anything that this isn’t at that level,” he said.
That decision, which hasn’t been made public, described the case as “immensely sad” because the accountant had otherwise had a blameless 25-year career.
He argued that it should be sufficient for NZICA to publish the details of the case without naming the accountant to demonstrate that justice had been done.
“The big difference in this case to all the others is the corruption and skulduggery that went on within that client,” Waalkens said.
A series of stories published in National Business Review from September 2016 had revealed that the Fuji Xerox subsidiary had been using “creative” accounting methods such as incorrectly reporting third party settlements, recording unearned income and juggling figures between the main subsidiary and its finance arm.
An audit the parent company reported on in April 2017 found the New Zealand subsidiary had actually chalked up more than $300 million in losses while reporting profits.
The accounts for the year ended March 2016 had eliminated $126 million of sales to third parties that had been recorded in the 2015 accounts but the 2016 accounts failed to explain why this had happened.
Waalkens argued that his client and his family didn’t deserve “the blaze of publicity” that would result if the council lifted name suppression and that he would never be able to practice as an auditor again.
Nevertheless, later in the hearing Waalkens said his client would voluntarily relinquish his auditor’s licence if the council permanently suppressed his name. The client would also willingly undertake an obligation to inform any future employers of the case.
Terry Sessions, representing NZICA, said during questioning by the council chair, Les Taylor, QC, that it was the accountant’s failure to act, and not an error of judgement, that led to the findings against him.
“No audit procedures were documented. It’s not a matter of him shouldering responsibility for others, it’s a matter of him failing to do what he was required to do,” Sessions said.
The accountant had a responsibility to assure himself that sufficient and appropriate evidence had been obtained to support the audit opinion reached but he failed to do so, he said.
Sessions argued that there had to be a high threshold for continuing name suppression.
The accountant has since left the firm he worked for, which Waalkens described as a “massive penalty.”
John Hagen, one of the panel of three hearing the appeal, asked why the firm’s name should continue to be suppressed since anybody could find out which firm it was by searching Companies Office records.
Waalkens replied that there have been cases in which a firm’s name had previously been published but was subsequently suppressed.
The accountant is also appealing the costs awarded against him. All details of his family circumstances were permanently suppressed at last November’s hearing.
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