Sorting through the bad apples

After being on the receiving end of a battering over the last couple of years, the priority for regulators is to rebuild reputations and convince the public and investors that accountants are reliable, honest and trustworthy.

It is no small task. A Mori poll in November 2002 found that 39% of respondents did not trust accountants to check company numbers, compared to 37% that did. Things are unlikely to have changed much since.

The new disciplinary body has a vitally important role in reversing this worrying statistic, and its executive counsel, Cameron Scott, must deliver.

By his own admission, Scott is a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. While serving as a solicitor in the Hong Kong office of top-five legal firm Allen & Overy, he was a partner in its dispute resolution department.

This, rather bizarrely, saw him defend accountants facing disciplinary action or lawsuits. While some have expressed concern over the appropriateness of his appointment, it could work in his favour. He knows, first hand, what goes on.

Of more concern could be his relative lack of contacts in the UK, after working for a decade in Hong Kong. His predecessor, Chris Dickson, is a barrister by trade who served as senior assistant director at the Serious Fraud Office. It would be foolish to think Dickson did not call in a few favours while investigating accountants for the Joint Disciplinary Scheme.

Scott will have difficulty matching Dickson on force of personality.

Dickson made the position his own when appointed in 1997, and was adept at dealing with both the press and those facing disciplinary action.

However, time is on Scott’s side. Having started in February, and with no official case to get his teeth into, he will have started forging relationships.

One aspect for which the JDS has been continually criticised is the length of time it takes to investigate and wrap up cases. Some have taken several years. The Versailles case, which the JDS tribunal finally completed work on late last month, relates to problems that first came to light in the early nineties. While the JDS did not start work on its investigation until much later, it shows how long they can take.

Scott says he will put a stop to the ‘delays and obfuscation’ that have held up investigations in the past. While the AIDB must be fair, he is well aware of the tricks accountants and their lawyers use to delay investigations.

He is aiming to radically reduce the time spent on appeals.

The solicitor will also enjoy a more powerful position than Dickson.

With the reputation of the accountancy profession at stake, it is paramount that the public sees it as proactively pursuing errant members.

Scott lists six areas where the AIDB will improve on the JDS. These are increased transparency, greater jurisdiction, independence from the accountancy bodies, the power to call in cases rather than wait for them to be referred, resolving cases more quickly, and composing tribunals of mostly non-accountants.

The latter, says Scott, will help dispel the perception that the accountant’s disciplinary process is just a case of ‘chaps regulating chaps’.

He will have the power to investigate all accountants now that both CIMA and CIPFA have given their support, and this will cover any financial activity they were involved with rather than just acts of misconduct.

The next two years will be extremely important for Scott. He must be seen as a tough and formidable force to be reckoned with – sooner rather than later. ‘I would expect that by the beginning of July we will be investigating something,’ he says. ‘But, the board is full of independently minded people, so I might be surprised – it could be sooner.’

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