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SEC Setting Record Investigation Pace

Securities: Probes are focusing on whether companies provided investors with false or misleading information.

February 23, 2002|WALTER HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Amid landmark financial fiascoes at companies such as Enron Corp. and Global Crossing Ltd., federal regulators are launching accounting-fraud investigations at a record pace this year.

In the first 36 calendar days of 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission initiated 41 probes of financial-statement fraud by companies, SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt said in an interview Friday. That's more than double the 18 cases in the comparable period last year.

The investigations seek to determine whether companies provided false or misleading financial statements to investors.

The frenzied pace reflects, in part, the wave of earnestness that has engulfed corporate America in the wake of the Enron imbroglio.

Amid investor concerns about the legitimacy of their accounting, some companies have come forward with disclosures about potential misdeeds. In other cases, probes have been started after companies revealed poor earnings or whistle-blowers alleged financial impropriety.

A significant number of investigations were sparked by voluntary corporate disclosures, said Pitt, under whom the SEC introduced a controversial policy in October that promised leniency to companies that report their own financial wrongdoing and take aggressive steps to correct it.

The goal was to coax companies to reveal improper activity early on rather than conceal it for fear of harsh penalties, thus potentially worsening the problems.

Some observers worried that the policy could induce wrongdoing by eliminating the fear of punishment.

However, Pitt said Friday that the current mea culpas stand in contrast to the period after he took office in August, when no companies made such disclosures.

"Anyone who had any question about how aggressive we were going to be certainly ought to understand that we are determined to protect investors and will do whatever we can to make sure that occurs," Pitt said.

The new probes are intended partly to send a message to companies that the SEC will go after wrongdoers, said Henry Hu, a securities-law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"To the extent that Enron has not put the fear of God into the hearts of accountants and senior managements, Chairman Pitt is doing so now," Hu said.

The notoriety brought by Enron and other scandals already has sparked an "unprecedented" outpouring of leads from corporate whistle-blowers, SEC enforcement chief Stephen Cutler said in a speech last week.

Last month, the SEC received 525 e-mails per day from members of the public advising of possible corporate wrongdoing, Cutler said, a 45% increase from last year's average.

On Feb. 5, the SEC got a record 763 e-mails, Cutler said.

The number of enforcement actions brought by the SEC against companies over accounting issues has been steadily increasing in recent years.

The agency brought 112 such financial fraud actions last year, compared with 79 in 1998.

Financial disclosure issues played a key role in Enron's demise.

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