US watchdog to probe accountancy firms over tax advice

The Securities and Exchange Commission is exploring whether conflicts-of-interest exist in the wake of the Clinton administration’s crackdown on aggressive corporate tax shelters, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The watchdog body is reported to be concerned that the rapidly growing business of shelter promotion creates an inherent conflict of interest for accountants when they sell to their own audit clients.

The SEC is particularly focused on whether accounting firms are providing such services on a contingency-fee basis, meaning they collect a percentage of the savings they produce. The SEC and other regulators worry that such arrangements give the auditing firm too much of a stake in the company’s bottom line, putting pressure on auditors to uphold the tax strategies, even if they believe the plans aren’t proper.

Contigency-fee arrangements are prohibited in many states and by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The move follows an SEC crackdown on staff at accounting firms on staff and their families who hold shares in audit clients.

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