Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest auditing firms, has agreed to pay a $ 100 million fine after US securities regulators found that some of their auditors had cheated on ethics exams – and that the firm did not do enough to stop the practice.
The penalty is the largest ever imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission against an auditing firm. An administrative civil order filed by regulators said Ernst – also known as EY – had misled investigators, withheld evidence and violated public accounting rules designed to maintain the integrity of the profession.
“It is simply outrageous that the very professionals responsible for catching the cheating of clients cheated on ethics exams of all things,” said Gurbir S. Grewal, the commission’s director of enforcement, when he announced the settlement on Tuesday.
The penalty is double the amount that KPMG, another large auditing firm, paid in 2019 to solve an investigation into similar allegations of cheating by auditors in internal training exams.
Ernst, who admitted in the order that the behavior was wrong, said in a statement that “nothing is more important than our integrity and our ethics.” The company also said that “sharing answers to any assessment or exam is a violation of our ethical guidelines and is not tolerated” and said it would require efforts to enforce ethical compliance.
The ethics exams that Ernst auditors cheated on were part of a continuing education program offered by most states for accountants to retain their professional licenses, according to the commission. The SEC said the cheating involved hundreds of the firm’s auditors from 2017 to 2021.
49 Ernst’s auditors received the “answer key” to an ethics exam that is part of the initial process of becoming a Certified Public Accountant, in accordance with the SEC’s administrative order.
Regulators said this was not the first time there had been widespread cheating on ethics exams by Ernst employees. The SEC said that a somewhat similar cheating scandal, which the company handled internally, took place from 2012 to 2015.
The SEC, in turn, noted that Ernst had previously issued warnings to employees not to cheat on exams, but had not introduced adequate controls until recently.
As part of the settlement, the SEC has ordered Ernst to hire two independent consultants. One will review the firm’s guidelines for ethical procedures, and the other will review its failure to disclose the fraud.
Mr. Grewal said the settlement “should serve as a clear message that the SEC will not tolerate breaches of integrity by independent auditors.”