The executive counsel of the Accountant’s Joint Disciplinary Scheme, Chris Dickson, is close to officially referring Ernst & Young to an independent disciplinary committee for its role in one of the most protracted scandals of recent years – Equitable Life.
The Big Four firm responded to Dickson’s criticisms last Friday and the JDS is expected to issue a public statement on the debacle any day now.
Dickson is no stranger to tricky situations. Having graduated from Cambridge University in 1969 with a degree in law, he was called to the Northern Ireland Bar a year later.
There he worked for the District Policing Partnership where he became involved in one of the most infamous events of the Northern Ireland troubles.
Captain Robert Nairac, GC, a soldier with the Grenadier Guards seconded to the SAS to work undercover in South Amagh, was abducted, interrogated and murdered in 1977. Dickson prosecuted those responsible.
He remained in Ireland for a further 10 years, after which he was called to the Bar of England & Wales. He remained there for two years before embarking on a career in combating financial crime.
Dickson joined the Serious Fraud Office in 1998 and steadily worked his way up the food chain. He was responsible for leading the SFO investigations into De Lorean Motor Cars and the BCCI frauds, among other cases.
After 10 years at the SFO, where he reached the heights of senior assistant director, Dickson felt it was time for a change and applied for the top job at the JDS.
He was subsequently appointed executive counsel in 1998, and has been rubbing accountants up the wrong way ever since.
The JDS complaints could not come at a worse time for Ernst & Young. The £2.6bn civil case with Equitable Life is due to begin at the High Court in April next year.
Dickson’s findings are likely to give Equitable more confidence in taking the case to trial rather than pursuing a settlement deal.
E&Y’s back is against the wall. The Big Four firm may find itself having to initiate settlement discussions, which in turn hands the advantage to Equitable. A part of one of the most enthralling accounting cases of recent years is about to come to an end, and Dickson is immensely proud of the work so far achieved.
Following the completion of an investigation, he takes his staff and those who worked on the case out to lunch. One feels this may be a particularly long one.
But his days at the JDS are numbered. Having served as executive counsel for six years, the JDS will be disbanded and replaced by the Investigation and Discipline Board.
By Dickson’s own admission it will be hard to let go, and while he probably has a few months’ worth of loose ends to tie up and investigations to complete, he is far from ready to be put out to pasture.
And who can blame him.
Accountants have been at the heart of some of the biggest financial frauds the UK has seen, making the executive counsel’s job as important as that of any regulator. Some of the cases Dickson has been involved are :
Complaints were laid against Big Four firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for its role in the audit of the engineering firm.
Penalties: Independent tribunal to hear the case.
Queens Moat Houses
Manipulation of results, much of which was ‘fraudulent’, resulted in reduction in market cap from £945m to just £24m.
Penalties: Former deputy chairman Martin Marcus fined £250K. Auditors Bird Lucking fined £17K.
Fraud involving rebates from suppliers being represented in accounts as unconditional. ‘This was fraud, and its purpose was to mislead shareholders,’ ruled an independent tribunal.
Penalties: Andersen ordered to pay £1.1m and two former partners fined £25K each.
Serious shortcomings found, judged by the standards of the time, including deficient work in establishing primary audit facts.
Penalties: Coopers & Lybrand handed largest fine by the JDS of £3.3m.
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