The Treasury Department has hired two big accounting firms to help keep tabs on the government’s financial-industry rescue program, and once again certain basic elements of the deals are shrouded in secrecy.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP will provide internal controls for the government’s $700 billion bailout fund. Ernst & Young will provide general accounting and consulting. The Treasury Department said the first phase of the three-year contracts will be worth $191,469.27 and $492.006.95, respectively.
That sort of specific detail is lacking in the agreements themselves. The PricewaterhouseCoopers contract released by the Treasury Department on Tuesday has blacked-out text in the area covering the firm’s bid, and also conceals the name of the PricewaterhouseCoopers partner who signed the deal.
Another section listing the names of the PricewaterhouseCoopers employees designated to work on the contract also is blacked out.
The Treasury Department said it contacted 12 accounting firms about the contracts, and received six bids for each of the engagements.
BailoutSleuth believes that transparency is vital to the success of the taxpayer-funded bailout program. The $700 billion allocated for the Troubled Asset Relief Program translates to roughly $2,300 for every man, woman and child in America.
The contracts between the Treasury Department and PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young have extensive language covering potential conflicts of interest. They include a provision allowing the firms to beg off certain assignments if they think the conflicts are too great.
PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young have connections to at least two companies whose troubles helped ignite the financial crisis.
Ernst & Young was the auditor for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15 after potential buyers walked away and federal officials declined to rescue the firm. Certain Lehman executives are the subject of at least three grand-jury investigations. According to news reports, Ernst & Young also has been subpoenaed as part of the probe.
After Lehman’s collapse, Hong Kong’s government hired Ernst & Young to assess the residual value of certain securities that had been guaranteed by Lehman and sold by Hong Kong banks. PricewaterhouseCoopers became the administrator for Lehman Brothers International (Europe), the European branch of the investment company. It has been winding down that branch’s operations and seeking buyers for its businesses and assets.
Both firms also worked for American International Group Inc., the big insurer that has been propped up by the Federal Reserve through more than $120 billion in funding, which essentially makes the government the company’s biggest shareholder.
PricewaterhouseCoopers is AIG’s longtime outside auditor. It put pressure on AIG earlier this year to change the way it valued certain securities tied mainly to sub-prime mortgage. In February, AIG said that PricewaterhouseCoopers had found a “material weakness” in its accounting, and warned that it would have to write down the v
alue of those investments by $4.88 billion.
Ernst & Young last year agreed to pay $1.6 million in penalties to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges that it violated independent auditing standards in connection with work it did for AIG and PNC Financial Services Goup Inc. in 2001.
Ernst & Young neither admitted nor denied guilt in the case, which involved a financial service developed by AIG that allowed companies to transfer volatile financial assets to so-called special purpose entities and remove them from their publicly reported financial statements.
According to the SEC, Ernst & Young helped AIG market the service. PNC was one of Ernst & Young’s audit clients. PNC later was forced to restate or revise its financial results for the second, third and fourth quarters of 2001, as well as its results for the full year.
The SEC said PNC tried to hide some $760 million in troubled loans and other assets by shifting them into special purpose entities it created with AIG.
The SEC settled charges with AIG in 2004, as part of a deal that also resolved related criminal charges. AIG neither admitted nor denied guilt, but agreed to pay $126 million in disgorgement, penalties and interest.
The SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against PNC in connection with the case.