Sources of Audit Committee Responsibilities

Audit committee responsibilities vary or differ depending on type of entity, business or organization, and its industry, plus other additional responsibilities, actions or tasks, if any, that the committee is delegated or voluntarily undertakes.

Audit committee responsibilities arise from several different sources and possible sources also depending on the type of entity, business or organization, and its industry, possibly including, for example:

– Is the business a public or a nonpublic company, and if it is a public company what federal laws, statutes, regulations and rules in that regard is the business or the audit committee subject to that are within the responsibilities of the audit committee?

– If the business is listed on a stock exchange or other similar board or self-regulatory organization (NYSE, NASDAQ, OTC, etc.), what requirements in that regard is the business or the audit committee subject to that are within the responsibilities of the audit committee?

– Is the business or organization subject to state laws, statutes, regulations and rules, and if so, what requirements in that regard is the business or the organization or the audit committee subject to that are within the responsibilities of the audit committee? For example, see Cal. Gov’t Code §12586 for California nonprofits.

– Is the business subject to international laws, statutes, regulation and rules, and if so, what requirements in that regard is the business or the audit committee subject to that are within the responsibilities of the audit committee?

– Has the board determined that the audit committee and the audit committee members are qualified, legally and otherwise, to serve as such?

– Does the audit committee have a written charter? If not, in my view it should whether or not legally required to do so. It is important for the audit committee, the board, executive and non-executive management, employees, owners, investors and shareholders, and other stakeholders to know what the audit committee is responsible for overseeing. What responsibilities does the audit committee charter delegate to the audit committee? I say delegate because the audit committee is a committee of the board.

– Oversight of the integrity and accuracy of the function, processes and actuality of the business’s internal controls, and its accounting and related reporting, including possible fraud or other unlawful acts relating thereto. It is required or standard that the audit committee exercise oversight in these areas.

– What independent auditor or outside auditor and auditing services does the business or organization need and retain? For example, audit, review, compilation, or single/government audit (formally A-133) services, or other audit or special audit services required by contract, donor, or otherwise? It is required or standard that the audit committee exercise oversight in these areas.

– Is the audit committee doing an audit committee self-evaluation whether legally required or not? It’s a good idea even if it is not legally required.

– Is the business required to have an internal audit function, or does it have such a function although not legally required to do so? It is required or standard that the audit committee exercise oversight in these areas.

– Is the audit committee legally responsible for or has the audit committee otherwise been delegated oversight of risk management or risk management processes? If so, has it been determined what that oversight will encompass and involve, and is the audit committee exercising the appropriate oversight?

– Anonymous reporting and investigation processes oversight, to the extent that such is a legal or other delegated responsibility of the audit committee.

– Other or select internal investigations and processes to the extent that such are a legal or other delegated responsibility of the audit committee, and that the audit committee members are situationally independent as is legally and necessarily required under the circumstances.

– Asset protection and asset protection processes to the extent that such are a legal or other delegated responsibility of the audit committee, possibly including, for example, oversight of processes for the protection of patents, trade secrets and trademarks, and other important bet-the-company assets.

– Oversight of processes for and compliance with laws, statutes, regulations, rules, and other legal and contractual requirements and obligations, to the extent that such are a legal or other delegated responsibility of the audit committee.

– Other transactions, events or situations in which situational independence is required or is advisable for oversight or evaluation and decision-making purposes such as certain M&A transactions, or transactions personally involving or relating to insiders or executive officers, or certain transactions involving or involving changes in command and control. Note that these matters are not per se audit committee responsibilities – instead I only mention these and other similar situations because typically directors who also serve on the audit committee could be involved in these situations because they have been determined by the board to be independent at least for audit committee member purposes. Of course, independence for audit committee member purposes does not necessary mean that a person is situationally independent for other matters, and for those other matters, situational independence from a legal perspective will also need to be evaluated and determined.

– Oversight of other business responsibilities, areas, tasks and processes relating thereto for which the audit committee has been delegated responsibility – there are several or many possible – just for example, possible oversight of processes for and actual business culture, safety (product, employee, customer, third party, environmental, information security and information use and privacy, computer, cloud and internet security and cybersecurity, and privacy), workplace environment, crisis management and response, insurance coverage, ESG, and other areas and tasks.

Note that the above is not an exhaustive list as audit committee responsibilities also depend on the specific business or organization, its industry, the situation at hand, and legal and delegated responsibilities.

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Remember, every case and situation is different. It is important to obtain and evaluate all of the evidence that is available, and to apply that evidence to the applicable standards and laws. You do need to consult with an attorney and other professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for legal or other services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation or as legal or other professional advice or representation.

Thank you for reading this post. I ask that you also pass it along to other people who would be interested as it is through collaboration that great things and success occur more quickly. And please also subscribe to this blog and my other blog (see below), and connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only.

I am also the Chair of the Business Law Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Blogs: Trust, estate/probate, power of attorney, conservatorship, elder and dependent adult abuse, nursing home and care, disability, discrimination, personal injury, responsibilities and rights, and other related litigation, and contentious administrations http://californiaestatetrust.com; Business, D&O, board, director, audit committee, shareholder, founder, owner, and investor litigation, governance, responsibilities and rights, compliance, investigations, and risk management  http://auditcommitteeupdate.com

My law practice primarily involves the following areas and issues:

Probate Court Disputes and Litigation

  • Trust and estate disputes and litigation, and contentious administrations representing fiduciaries and beneficiaries; elder abuse; power of attorney disputes; elder care and nursing home abuse; conservatorships; claims to real and personal property; and other related disputes and litigation.

Business and Business-Related Disputes and Litigation: Private, Closely Held, and Family Businesses; Public Companies; and Nonprofit Entities

  • Business v. business disputes including breach of contract; unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices; fraud, deceit and misrepresentation; unfair competition; licensing agreements, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; etc.
  • Misappropriation of trade secrets
  • M&A disputes
  • Founder, officer, director and board, investor, shareholder, creditor, VC, control, governance, decision making, fiduciary duty, conflict of interest, independence, voting, etc., disputes
  • Buy-sell disputes
  • Funding and share dilution disputes
  • Accounting, lost profits, and royalty disputes and damages
  • Access to corporate and business records disputes
  • Employee, employer and workplace disputes and processes, discrimination, whistleblower and retaliation, harassment, defamation, etc.

Investigations and Governance

  • Corporate and business internal investigations
  • Board, audit committee and special committee governance and processes, disputes, conflicts of interest, independence, culture, ethics, etc.

The following are copies of the tables of contents of three of the more formal materials that I have written over the years about accounting/auditing, audit committees, and related legal topics – Accounting and Its Legal Implications was my first formal effort, which resulted in a published book that had more of an accounting and auditing focus; Chapter 5A, Audit Committee Functions and Responsibilities, for the California Continuing Education of the Bar has a more legal focus; and the most recent Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (February 2017) also has a more legal focus:

Accounting and Its Legal Implications

Chapter 5A, Audit Committee Functions and Responsibilities, CEB Advising and Defending Corporate Directors and Officers

Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide

The following are other summary materials that you might find useful:

OVERVIEW OF A RISK MANAGEMENT PROCESS THAT YOU CAN USE 03162018

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Success, Diligence, and Defense - David Tate, Esq, 05052018

COSO Enterprise Risk Management Framework ERM Components and Principles

From a prior blog post which you can find at https://wp.me/p75iWX-dk if the below scan is too difficult to read:

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AUDIT COMMITTEE SELF-EVALUATION

David W. Tate

Attorney at Law

Certified Public Accountant (inactive California)

Copyright 2019 David W. Tate (however, you are authorized to download and print these materials for your use, and to also pass them to other people who would be interested)

BLOGS

D&O, Audit Committees, Risk Management, Compliance, Investigations & Governance: http://auditcommitteeupdate.com

Trust, Estate, Conservatorship & Elder Abuse Litigation: http://californiaestatetrust.com

Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/in/davetateesq

Twitter: http://twitter.com/davidtateesq

 

Self-evaluation is an important board and committee activity, and can be very helpful if done properly.

A.  Introduction and Overview

The following discussion covers audit committee self-evaluation and provides processes that you can use. As noted elsewhere in these materials, although many board and audit committee functions, responsibilities and tasks are specified by statute, regulation, rule or pronouncement, board and audit committee member standards of care remain significantly dependent on due diligence and prudent judgment.

Boards and audit committees of various entities are required by law, regulation or rule to conduct annual committee self-evaluations; however, it is worthwhile for boards and audit committees of all public and private companies and nonprofit entities to conduct self-evaluations. Board and audit committee jobs are challenging, ongoing, and technical in nature, and require the members to significantly interact with many people in different capacities within and outside of the entity. It only makes sense that both boards and audit committees should at least once each year take time to step back and review, evaluate and make improvements to their manners of operation, and also consider helpful actions that can be taken by other people with whom the boards and audit committees interact. Self-evaluation will be worthwhile even if it results in improving only one area of operation.

Board and audit committee responsibilities originate from several different sources at least including (1) activities and responsibilities that boards or audit committees voluntarily undertake or that are delegated to them; (2) the business judgment rule; (3) the specific laws, regulations and rules that are applicable to the entity’s directors and audit committee members; (4) the wording of the board and audit committee charters, if there are charters; (5) shareholder and stakeholder expectations, and (6) for audit committees, accounting and auditing pronouncements relating to the outside auditor’s activities.

Prudent board and audit committee processes and diligence are also important to reduce member and entity liability and reputation risk. An increasing number of cases hold that board and audit committee members can be liable for failure to exercise sufficient diligence, failure to spot and respond to red flags, and failure to take action. Active board, committee and corporate diligence tend to demonstrate prudent business judgment and negate allegations of recklessness, improper intent, intentional wrongdoing, or “scienter” such as in the context of securities litigation, thus reducing the risk of securities liability and damages. In the context of audit committee activities, potential entity, board, and audit committee member liability typically arises in the context of alleged improper accounting practices, written and oral public misrepresentations (such as with respect to financial matters), and improper employment practices.

Although not required, there can be advantages to having a facilitator conduct an interactive interview approach to the self-evaluation process, but without performance grading or rating: it can be difficult to construct a questionnaire with standardized questions that would be similarly understood by each of the participants in the self-evaluation process; different people use different rating scales; different people express responses in different manners; and certain important issues will change from year to year. A facilitated approach may encourage better discussion and comment, compilation, continuity, explanation, and follow-up. Contact me if you are interested in committee self-evaluation assistance at a reasonable fixed fee.

Issues and topic areas to consider during the self-evaluation process will naturally vary from entity to entity, and from board and audit committee to board and audit committee. Thus, to stimulate discussion, below for both boards and audit committees I have provided lists of potential broad issues or topic areas to consider for discussion and evaluation, including both successes and possible improvements; and I have also outlined processes to assist your board and audit committee self-evaluation processes.

B.  Audit Committee Self-Evaluation

1.  Sample List of Issues and Topics to Consider for Audit Committee Self-Evaluation

The following is a list of issues and topic areas to consider for discussion and evaluation. The list is intended to help trigger thought processes, but, of course, is not exhaustive as areas of discussion and evaluation will vary from entity to entity, and from committee to committee. The following list is not intended to and does not suggest that each or any of the below issues and topics must be considered or covered and is not a checklist – instead, if your audit committee is required to conduct a specific evaluation process or to cover certain specific issues and topics, you will need to separately consider the specific requirements, if any, for your audit committee and its evaluation process pursuant to law, regulation or rule. In that regard, please also see the disclaimer and limitations at the beginning of these materials.

-Audit committee meeting agenda preparation and dissemination process.

-Committee member independence and situational independence, financial literacy, experience and expertise.

-Committee member access to information and/or education pertinent to the functions and responsibilities of the audit committee. Are the needs of the committee members being met, so that they are sufficiently knowledgeable and educated about the company or nonprofit and its industry; relevant significant accounting and auditing issues; relevant legal matters; internal controls, risk assessment and management; governance; and new developments in those and other areas?

-Committee and committee member interactions, including interaction between committee members, and between the committee and the board, the CEO, the CFO, the outside auditor, the internal auditor, legal counsel, compliance and ethics, HR, consultants, and other people.

-The committee’s processes for identifying and spotting issues, evaluation and decision making.

-The contents of the audit committee charter, and a mutual understanding of the audit committee’s responsibilities and tasks. The charter is a requirement for public companies, and is a good idea for many private companies and nonprofit entities. The charter is a prudent document to identify and clarify the audit committee’s responsibilities. In addition to the committee itself, it is important for the board, the executive officers, and other stakeholders to have a correct understanding about the committee’s responsibilities and limitations, and the extent to which state or local jurisdiction, U.S. and international requirements and responsibilities apply or may apply to your audit committee.

-Selection of the outside auditor; audit planning; review of the performance of the outside auditor; and review of the quarterly review and annual audit report and process (or compilation if appropriate).

-Review of recent developments relating to the business judgment rule, standard of care and acceptable reliance on other people.

-Review of accounting and financial internal and fraud/embezzlement related controls and processes, risk assessment and management, possible entity and individual liability and reputation risk exposure; and compliance assessment and management relating to laws, regulations, and rules that are within the scope of the audit committee’s functions and responsibilities including issues relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

– Review of the accounting department, and accounting and financial reporting for transactions including all of the subcomponents such as principles and policies applied (quality not just acceptability); judgments, estimates and reserves; timing and cutoff procedures; off balance sheet transactions; related party transactions; contingencies and liabilities; revenue recognition; expenses; inventories; goodwill; insider trading; and other matters relating to accounting and financial statement reports.

-Implementing revenue recognition rules, and other important, new or changing accounting principles.

-Review of internal investigation processes, procedures and needs.

-Review of the financial and internal audit functions, and how they can be helpful to the audit committee in the performance of its responsibilities and tasks.

-Review of risk management and uncertainty issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Implementing COSO 2013 or other appropriate processes.

-Documenting and reporting the audit committee’s activities and minutes.

-The audit committee’s use of attorneys and consultants.

-The company’s investor communication processes.

-Whistleblower, ethics, anonymous reporting and complaint handling processes to the extent that the reporting is within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Document retention policies.

-Review of the compliance and ethics function and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s responsibilities, and how they can be helpful to the audit committee in the performance of its responsibilities and tasks.

-Governance, including tone at the top, financial leadership, transparency and appearance.

-Review of employer, employee and workplace processes, culture, safety, and disciplinary practices that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of tax compliance and reporting issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of cybersecurity and internet security issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Insurance.

-Review of pension and health plan related issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of information privacy issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of asset protection, IP, trade secret, etc. practices to the extent that they are within the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of environmental issues and safety that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of product and consumer safety issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.

-Review of billing and accounting relating to the receipt of funds or revenue from governmental sources such as Medicare and Medicaid; compliance with applicable laws, regulations, rules and other requirements; and oversight of expenses relating to these areas.

-Review of the acceptance, receipt, allocation, expenditure or distribution, and accounting for all charitable and donor funds, grants, contributions, pledges and other resources, including compliance with all requirements, restrictions and special uses.

-Review of accounting for collaboration and joint venture arrangements, including the allocation of receipts/income and distributions/expenses between the entities.

-And, in this economic environment, review of the fair value of funds and investments, including loss of value; liquidity concerns; possible going concern issues; estimates for uncollectibles and related reserves; debt/loan covenants; and funding source uncertainties including those that relate to collaboration and joint venture arrangements.

-It is also important for the audit committee to clarify with the board what responsibilities it has, if any, for oversight of the numerous and various areas of taxation and compliance; ERISA, pension and health and welfare plans; investments; tax exempt status including fund raising, dues, solicitation, and political, campaign and lobby activities; and other areas significant to the entity.

-Discussion about audit committee membership and recruitment needs.

-Additional significant topics or issues that should be discussed.

2.  A Self-Evaluation Process and Format for Audit Committees

The following eight primary steps outline a proposed audit committee self-evaluation process that is workable for audit committees of public companies, private companies and nonprofit entities, whether using or not using, an outside facilitator.

 

Step 1. Determine the people who will be participating in the evaluation process, including the audit committee members, and other people, if any, to interview for comment.

Provide the names of the people who will participate in the evaluation process.

 

 

Step 2. Determine how the participant interviews will be conducted, individually or in a group, in person or by telephone, skype or some other means.

Provide comments or information about how the interviews will be handled with the various different people who will participate in the evaluation.

 

 

Step 3. Arrange participant individual or group interview dates and times.

Provide participant individual or group interview date and time information.

 

 

Step 4. Provide the participants with pre-interview materials and a list of possible issue or topic areas (broad and specific) for consideration and discussion. Of course, the participants can add additional issues or topics. Use this paper for that purpose.

Provide information regarding the status of disseminating the pre-interview materials.

 

 

Step 5. Have each participant provide a list of one to five, or more, issues or topic areas that the participant would specifically like to discuss during the evaluation process.

Provide comments and information regarding receipt of issues or topic areas from the self-evaluation process participants, and the respective issues or topic areas listed.

 

 

Step 6. Conduct information intake or interviews with participants individually or as a group.

Provide comments and information from the participants or the status of such – the input can be made by the participants themselves or by a facilitator during self-evaluation interviews.

 

 

Step 7. Summarize in a report format the issues and topic areas, information received, and suggestions made during the self-evaluation process.

Provide a summary in a report format.

 

 

Step 8. Provide a report back to the audit committee, and possibly conduct a committee group review of the self-evaluation process, information obtained, and suggestions made, and possible future actions or follow-up.

Provide additional comments and information about the self-evaluation process or results.

 

 

Concluding comments. I hope you have found this discussion helpful and at least a good starting point for your audit committee self-evaluation. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in discussing the audit committee self-evaluation process, or if you would like help with facilitation of committee self-evaluation at a reasonable fixed fee.

Best to you,

David Tate, Esq.

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Auditor Inclusion of Critical Audit Matters in Audit Opinion – Center for Audit Quality Release to Help Understanding

You might be aware that external auditors are required to include a discussion of critical audit matters in their audit opinion reports for large accelerated filers for audits of fiscal years ending on or after June 30, 2019, and for other public companies for audits of fiscal years ending on or after December 31, 2020. I expect that CAMs will in some instances present or cause contentions between the external auditor on the one hand, and the audit committee, board, and executive officers on the other hand.

A Critical Audit Matter or CAM is defined as:

Any matter arising from the audit of the financial statements that was communicated or required to be communicated to the audit committee: and that:

  1. Relates to accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements; and
  2. Involved especially challenging, subjective, or complex auditor judgment.

Thus, based on the above definition, simply determining whether a matter is a CAM could be a challenging issue.

For example, in any given audit situation consider:

-What matters were communicated, or were required to be communicated to the audit committee;

-Relating to accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements; and

-Involved especially challenging, subjective, or complex auditor judgment?

I will be discussing the good, the bad, the ugly, and the confusing as this upcoming new area of audit opinion report continues to develop. Auditors and audit committees will need to carefully evaluate what to communicate and what is required to be communicated, materiality (qualitative and quantitative), and whether a matter involves especially challenging, subjective, or complex audit judgment.

For additional help with these issues, the following is a link to a June 24, 2018, release by the Center for Audit Quality entitled Critical Audit Matters: Key Concepts and FAQs for Audit Committees, Investors, and other Users of Financial Statements – click on the following link https://www.thecaq.org/critical-audit-matters-key-concepts-and-faqs-audit-committees-investors-and-other-users-financial

Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and California inactive CPA)

 

 

 

 

Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (02172017) – posted here, and being update

Below I have provided a link to Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide, which I last fully updated February 17, 2017. Since that time developments relating to various of the discussion topics have been posted to this blog. I am starting the process of fully updating the Guide. To be sure there have been changes and developments since February 17, 2017; however, I believe that you will still find the Guide useful.

Click on the following link to the February 17, 2017, Guide Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide 02172017 with Appendix A-2

The following is a screenshot of the Guide’s cover:

 

 

 

New COSO Updated ERM Framework – Coming Soon – End of June, Perhaps – Could Be Very Important

Just a heads up, a source has suggested that the new long-anticipated COSO (Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission) ERM update might finally be out at the end of June. COSO is spending a very long time (since October 2014) preparing and vetting this “update” of the 2004 Enterprise Risk Management — Integrated Framework. COSO’s sponsoring organizations are the American Accounting Association (AAA), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), Financial Executives International (FEI), The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), and the National Association of Accountants (now the Institute of Management Accountants [IMA]), and the Commission includes representatives from industry, public accounting, investment firms, and SROs (exchanges).

We’ll have to wait and see what we get with this “update,” which will either simply be a relatively unimpressive or vague tweak, or a useful, modernized, sufficiently detailed guide which might become the standard to achieve, or somewhere in between. I’m hopeful for the useful version – ERM needs a big boost – this “update” is important. I find that there really are only three ways to provide this type of boost: sponsorship and push by large or influential organizations and people, mandatory (i.e., by law, regulation or rule) adoption, or, sometimes, push and expectancy by the public.

Here is the link to the COSO website https://www.coso.org/Pages/default.aspx

Best to you, David Tate, Esq., Litigation, D&O, audit committees, etc., Royse Law Firm http://rroyselaw.com/

Evaluating Director Independence – Zynga Shareholder Derivative Suit

Thomas Sandys Derivatively on Behalf of Zynga, Inc. v. Pincus, et al., Delaware Supreme Court, Case No. 157,2016, December 5, 2016, highlights the sometimes difficulty, and the importance of evaluating director independence in the circumstance of a shareholder derivative suit.

In Zynga the plaintiff filed his shareholder derivative suit without first making a demand upon the board that the Company sue Company insiders that were alleged to have improperly sold Company stock. Instead of first making the demand upon the board, plaintiff argued that such a demand would have been futile because a majority of the nine person board members lacked independence.

In summary, the plaintiff alleged two derivative claims based on allegations that certain top managers and directors at Zynga were given an exemption to the Company’s standing rule preventing sales of stock by insiders until three days after an earnings announcement, and that the insiders who participated in the sale breached their fiduciary duties by misusing confidential information when they sold their shares while in possession of adverse, material non-public information. And plaintiff also asserted a duty of loyalty claim against the directors who approved the sale.

The holding in Zynga is that at the pleading stage there was sufficient evidence to suggest that a majority of the board did lack independence so as to excuse not making the demand upon the board. The holding is primarily interesting for the Court’s discussion about three particular board members, and the reasons why the Court determined that there was evidence to sufficiently suggest that those three directors did in fact lack independence to impartially consider a demand that the Company bring suit against the selling insiders, which resulted in a majority of the board also lacking independence, so as to excuse making the pre-suit demand upon the board.

To plead demand excusal the plaintiff must plead particularized factual allegations that create a reasonable doubt that, as of the time the complaint was filed, the board of directors could have properly exercised its independent and disinterested business judgment in responding to a demand. At the pleading stage, a lack of independence turns on whether the plaintiff has pleaded facts from which the director‘s ability to act impartially on a matter important to the interested party can be doubted because that director may feel subject to the interested party‘s dominion or beholden to that interested party.
With respect to one of the directors in question, the Court found troubling for the purpose of independence or lack thereof that the particular board member and her husband co-owned an unusual asset, an airplane, with Zynga’s former CEO and controlling stockholder, which the Court found was suggestive of an “extremely intimate personal friendship between their families.”

And with respect to the other two directors, the Court found troubling for the purpose of independence or lack thereof that the directors are partners at a prominent venture capital firm and that they and their firm not only controlled 9.2% of Zynga‘s equity as a result of being early-stage investors, but have other interlocking relationships with the controller and another selling stockholder outside of Zynga. More specifically the Court stated “Although it is true that entrepreneurs like the controller need access to venture capital, it is also true that venture capitalists compete to fund the best entrepreneurs and that these relationships can generate ongoing economic opportunities. There is nothing wrong with that, as that is how commerce often proceeds, but these relationships can give rise to human motivations compromising the participants’ ability to act impartially toward each other on a matter of material importance. Perhaps for that reason, the Zynga board itself determined that these two directors did not qualify as independent under the NASDAQ rules, which have a bottom line standard that a director is not independent if she has ―a relationship which, in the opinion of the Company‘s board of directors, would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment . . . .[Footnote #1: NASDAQ Marketplace Rule 5605(a)(2)] Although the plaintiff’s lack of diligence made the determination as to these directors perhaps closer than necessary, in our view, the combination of these facts creates a pleading stage reasonable doubt as to the ability of these directors to act independently on a demand adverse to the controller‘s interests. When these three directors are considered incapable of impartially considering a demand, a majority of the nine member Zynga board is compromised for Rule 23.1 purposes and demand is excused. Thus, the dismissal of the complaint is reversed.”

As you might correctly assume, board member independence can arise as an issue in several different corporate and governance related circumstances.

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When should you take your internal accounting error/mistake or irregularity/fraud investigation outside?

Most every audit committee member, in-house counsel, other board member, CEO, CFO, risk officer, and chief internal auditor will at some time consider whether an accounting related investigation that is being done internally should be taken outside. The decision to stay inside or to go outside isn’t necessarily clear, and there certainly could be differing opinions depending on the facts and circumstances of the situation. The following isn’t a formal or legal discussion, but below are at least some of the factors that I would consider and that you might consider. Every situation is different at least to some extent.

  1. Is there really the expertise in-house to do the investigation? This is an important consideration that I will have more to say about in other posts – however, consider whether it is important for the primary investigator to not only have a legal background in the subject matter, but also accounting or auditing backgrounds. Whereas an accounting or auditing firm might also be retained to assist with the investigation, you might well also find that it would be helpful for the primary investigator to be able to understand the accounting, internal control and auditing or auditor issues, and that the primary investigator might need those backgrounds to better lead the investigation and make decisions or evaluations.
  2. Is there really the time availability to handle the investigation in-house?
  3. Is the dollar amount involved sufficiently large to warrant going outside for the investigation?
  4. Are the qualitative natures of the issues sufficiently important to warrant going outside, such as because of possible public relations, ethics, fraud, or other considerations?
  5. Does it warrant going outside because of the possible people who might be interviewed, questioned or involved including their office or stature in the organization, and their relationships with the people who are investigating, the board, the audit committee, the executive officers and other people?
  6. For whatever reasons, is it warranted or required that the investigation be independent, or more independent in nature.
  7. If the initial investigation began in-house (which is entirely possible), has it for whatever reason now become more prudent to go outside?

That’s it for now. Just some thoughts. I’m sure that you can come up with additional thoughts – the above discussion isn’t all encompassing.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco and California)

DTatePicture_Square

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Defense 07182016

tates-excellent-audit-committee-guide-10202016-final-with-appendix-a

sec-whistleblower-awards

Important – SEC v. United – Administrative Proceeding Relating to United’s Internal Accounting Controls to Prevent Violation of United’s Policies

On December 2, 2016, the SEC issued an Accounting and Auditing Enforcement, Administrative Proceeding Order against United Continental Holdings, Inc. Here is a link to the Order, CLICK HERE

Why is this Order important – because the SEC found that “United failed to design and maintain a system of internal accounting controls that was sufficient to prevent its officers from approving the use of United’s assets in connection with the South Carolina Route in violation of United’s Policies, which prohibited the use of assets for corrupt purposes.” This isn’t a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case – the alleged corruption or impropriety occurred in the United States. The SEC alleged that United “instituted the South Carolina Route following pressure from David Samson (“Samson”), then the Chairman of he Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (“Port Authority”). The route provided Samson – who exercised authority and influence as a Port Authority official in matters affecting United’s business interests – with a more direct route to his house in South Carolina.”

The scenario in this case could occur at any time that a public company (1) allegedly acts improperly, and (2) it is alleged that the act was allowed or able to occur because of insufficient internal controls (resulting in a violation of the books and records and internal accounting controls provisions of the Securities Exchange Act, which is automatically alleged in a great number of cases because it is easy in most situations to allege that something unexpected occurred because of inadequate internal controls), and (3) the alleged improper act also allegedly violates some policy or procedure of the public company (i.e., in this case to not use corporate assets for an allegedly corrupt or improper purpose).

What can a company (and the audit committee) do about these possible situations? Review the company’s policies and procedures, and adopt and enact sufficient internal controls, monitored and updated regularly, to ensure that the policies and procedures are followed. But, of course, it is difficult and probably impossible to ensure 100% compliance. I have previously written that the books and records and internal accounting controls provision in the Securities Exchange Act should be amended to include a standard of conduct provision (such as negligence) because it is unreasonable to expect that internal controls, no matter how good, will stop all alleged wrongful conduct.

Below is a screenshot of some of the SEC v. United Order, providing a summary of some of the facts, and I have also included below a link to Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide. Dave Tate, Esq., San Francisco and California

sec-v-united-continental-holdings

The following is a link to Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (updated October 20, 2016), Click Here

The following is a link to my trust, estate, conservatorship and elder abuse litigation blog, http://californiaestatetrust.com

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Defense 07182016