QUESTION: What’s the right thing to do in this situation?
CPAs identify strongly with the profession’s core values of integrity, objectivity and professional competence in all we do. When faced with an ethical dilemma, your CPA peer group is often a great place to turn for consultation to walk through the facts and circumstances of a situation and sort out the pertinent questions.
Some CPAs, however – particularly solo financial officers in business or sole practitioners – might lack a ready source for a peer consultation. Or, because of the sensitivity of the dilemma, they may prefer an anonymous resource. In consideration of this need, OSCPA’s Executive Board has developed a new member service, The Ethics Consultant.
A select group of CPA volunteers, senior in experience in the profession, will be matched one-on-one with inquirers to meet via conference call. Ethics consultants will serve as a sounding board to help a member sort out sticky situations. To preserve anonymity, no names will be shared.
“There has been a void in this area in the profession,” noted Daniel M. Spilman, CPA, managing principal, Spilman Hills & Heidebrink Ltd, and member of the 2010 Executive Board that approved the program. “Practitioners in all areas of employment may lack access to someone with a comparable frame of reference, experience and training. CPAs often know in their gut what the right answer is, but need to speak with someone to reinforce that answer.”
“Early in my career, I had to take a step back at one point and answer, ‘Who do you want to be, and how do you want to position yourself in the marketplace?’” added Spilman. “My CPA peers helped me sort out that I was on the right track in the decisions I was making, doing the ‘right thing,’ which isn’t necessarily the easiest thing.” QUESTION: Will this get me in trouble?
While CPA volunteers are not attorneys and will not be able to provide legal advice, they can help members focus on the significant questions in real-world circumstances. Ethics consultants cannot predict what the Accountancy Board of Ohio or OSCPA Professional Ethics Committee would do, or, if someone is prosecuted what the outcome would be, but they can help members identify issues for consideration.
“CPAs are almost always motivated by wanting to help the employer or the client,” said Fred B. Miller, CPA, president, Seicon Ltd., who assisted OSCPA in designing the program. “That motivation frequently can cause the CPA to continue to be associated with a situation when it is no longer in their best interest. CPAs need to be reminded that when it comes to the ultimate price paid, ‘the cover-up is worse than the crime.’”
“CPAs need to understand that they can go to jail for the acts committed by the client or employer. Continuing to be associated with an entity while an act is occurring has a high likelihood of resulting in the CPA being accused of being involved in the cover-up,” Miller said. “In Enron, Arthur Andersen wasn’t charged with conducting a poor audit, but instead with participating in covering up information after the fact. Jim Tressel would probably still be coaching at OSU if he hadn’t signed a document saying he was not aware of ethics violations occurring.”
While not a substitute for legal advice, ethics consultants can help identify when an issue should be referred to an attorney or other expert resource, or refer members to relevant ethical rules. “Hiring an attorney to protect me from my employer is not usually one’s first thought,” Spilman said, “but it’s important to determine when that’s the right answer.” QUESTION: I understand your concern, but if I decide to proceed anyway, is there any rule that prevents me from…?
An ethics consultant can help members cut through the rationalizations. Some questions contributed by the consultants in their organizational meeting included:
- Would you feel comfortable trying to explain this on the witness stand?
- Would you feel comfortable having your name or the CPA designation associated with this on the front page of the newspaper?
As one consultant stated, “If you’re uncomfortable enough with the situation that you thought about making the call, look a little further. There are many situations where the CPA is continually being pushed to do something that sounds mild when considered individually, but contributes to a pattern when considered collectively. If you know about it, you could be responsible.”
Subordination of judgment is a common theme of CPA ethical dilemmas. Another consultant said, “As a CPA, we can’t be associated with information we know to be materially misleading. ‘I knew it was happening, but I didn’t actually do it,’ or ‘I only did what I was told to do’ does not absolve the CPA from responsibility. He or she is a CPA, and that means something.”
QUESTION: Should I call? How do I call?
If you’ve thought through all the issues and are still in a quandary, an experienced peer might be able to ask if you have also considered one more element of the situation.
If you’re getting advice about “what you can get away with,” you might want to talk with one more person who shares your same ethical framework of professional responsibility. Or you may just want affirmation that you’re on the right track.
Call Laura Hay or Lisa Brown at 800.686.2727 to be matched up with an Ethics Consultant. If they are not available and you don’t want to leave a message, call CPAnswers at 888.959.1212 and they will get your message to them as soon as possible. An appointment will be set up for an anonymous conference call with one of the consultants at their first availability.