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Webster Resigns Accounting Board Post

November 13, 2002|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A new watchdog board created to address the recent wave of corporate accounting scandals was rendered leaderless Tuesday, as former FBI Director William H. Webster resigned the top post amid what he called a "perfect storm" of controversy surrounding his appointment.

Webster's action capped weeks of tumult stemming from a bitterly divided 3-2 vote of the Securities and Exchange Commission on Oct. 25 that approved his nomination.

Since then, a major accounting firm accused Webster of making "false and misleading statements" about his awareness of financial problems at a small company at which he had been a director.

The political fallout led to the resignations last week of SEC Chairman Harvey L. Pitt, who had championed Webster's nomination, as well as the SEC's top accountant, Robert Herdman.

Webster, 78, had strongly hinted in recent days that he would quit rather than hobble the new board at its launch.

In a letter to the SEC on Tuesday, he said: "I now believe my continued presence on the board will only generate more distractions which will not be helpful to the important mission of the board."

The exodus of key regulators comes at a time when investors have been clamoring for greater oversight of corporate America -- and the accounting profession -- in the wake of the stock market's meltdown and financial scandals at such giant firms as Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc.

Congress responded with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, signed last summer by President Bush, which, among other reforms, created the new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to establish standards for corporate auditors and to monitor and discipline accounting firms.

Although Webster's departure threatened to bring the work of the fledgling board to a standstill, other board members said they would proceed with their previously scheduled organizing meeting in Washington this morning.

"I'm very anxious not to lose momentum," said board member Willis D. Gradison Jr., a former Republican congressman from Ohio. He said he hoped the SEC would name an acting chairman so that the board could proceed to more substantive matters, such as hiring a staff and securing a budget.

The five-member board gets start-up funds from the SEC's budget, which must be reimbursed when the board begins collecting fees from accounting firms and public companies.

Because the board reports to the SEC, the appointment of a permanent chairman probably will not come not come until after a new SEC chief is named, "and that could be a long way off," Gradison said.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), incoming chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said the new SEC chairman should have a role in selecting the head of the oversight board and implied that there should be no rush to pick the SEC chief.

"While it is greatly important that a new SEC chairman is selected, it is crucial that someone of the highest quality and integrity is chosen," Shelby said in a statement Tuesday. "It is a significant position that should be filled carefully and not with great haste."

By law, the new accounting board must be fully operational by April.

The turmoil over Webster is rooted in his work as a director for U.S. Technologies, a small, now nearly insolvent Washington-based firm that has been sued by shareholders for fraud.

Webster was the head of U.S. Technologies' audit committee in July 2001 when the company's accounting firm, BDO Seidman, warned the committee of problems it saw with the company's internal financial controls.

A month later, U.S. Technologies fired BDO Seidman, saying its work was too expensive.

Webster had told Pitt about the controversies at U.S. Technologies, but Pitt did not inform the four other SEC commissioners before the vote on Webster's appointment. Pitt asked the SEC's Herdman and his staff to look into Webster's role at the company, and the staff found "nothing of concern," a Pitt spokesman has said.

The revelations about Webster's role at U.S. Technologies, and that Pitt had decided against sharing the information with his fellow commissioners, led to an uproar that drove Pitt to resign last week. Herdman also quit.

Webster, a former federal judge who directed the FBI from 1978 to 1987 and the CIA from 1987 to 1991, has not been accused of wrongdoing. But BDO Seidman sued U.S. Technologies Nov. 1, alleging that Webster had made "false and misleading statements" when he told the Washington Post that the accounting firm did not inform him of U.S. Technologies' problems until after the auditors were terminated.

Webster has since said that whatever he learned from BDO Seidman in the July 2001 conference call did not set off "bells" in terms of its importance.

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In his resignation letter, Webster said that "many forces at work produced a kind of 'perfect storm' " over his tenure.

"Notwithstanding my best efforts to communicate the facts accurately and forthrightly, media interest shows no sign of abatement," he said.

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