PwC: Sharing the Hot Seat with Andersen?
So far in the Enron scandal, Arthur Andersen has borne all the weight of the accounting profession's failures. But that's about to change. BusinessWeek has learned that congressional investigators are taking a keen interest in PricewaterhouseCoopers' role -- or roles -- in deals between Enron and its captive partnerships. A congressional source says the House Energy & Commerce Committee is collecting documents and interviewing officials at PwC.
At issue is the firm's work for both Enron and those controversial debt-shielding partnerships, set up and controlled by then-Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow. On two occasions -- in August, 1999, and May, 2000 -- the world's biggest accounting firm certified that Enron was getting a fair deal when it exchanged its own stock for options and notes issued by the Fastow-controlled partnerships.
Investigators plan to question the complex valuation calculations that underlie the opinions. Enron ultimately lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the deals. A PwC spokesman says the firm stands by its assessment of the deals' value at the time.
Perhaps more significantly, Pricewaterhouse was working for one of the Fastow partnerships -- LJM2 Co-Investment -- at the same time it assured Enron that the Houston-based energy company was getting a fair deal in its transactions with LJM2. In effect, PwC was providing tax advice to help LJM2 structure its deal -- the first of the so-called Raptor transactions -- while the accounting firm was also advising Enron on the value of that deal.
Pricewaterhouse acknowledges the overlapping engagements but says its dual role did not violate accounting's ethics standards, which require firms to maintain a degree of objectivity in dealing with clients. The firm says the work was done by two separate teams, which did not share data. PwC's spokesman says LJM2's tax structure wasn't a factor in its opinion on the deal's valuation. And, the spokesman says, each client was informed about the other engagement. That disclosure may mean that the firm's actions were in the clear, says Stephen A. Zeff, professor of accounting at Rice University in Houston.
Lynn Turner, former chief accountant at the Securities & Exchange Commission, still has questions. "The standard [for accountants] is, you've got to be objective," says Turner, who now heads the Center for Quality Financial Reporting at Colorado State University. "The question is whether [Pricewaterhouse] met its obligation to Enron's board and shareholders to be objective when it was helping LJM2 structure the transaction it was reviewing. From a common-sense perspective, does this make sense?"
PwC's contacts on both sides of the LJM2 deal were Fastow and his subordinates. BusinessWeek could not determine whether Enron's board, the ultimate client for the fairness opinion, knew of Pricewaterhouse's dual engagements. But W. Neil Eggleston, the attorney representing Enron's outside directors, says Robert K. Jaedicke, chairman of the board's audit committee, has "no recollection of this conflict being brought to the audit committee or the board."
In any case, Capitol Hill's interest in these questions could prove embarrassing to Pricewaterhouse. The firm is charged with overseeing $130 million in assets as bankruptcy administrator of Enron's British retail arm. On Feb. 12, SunTrust Banks said it had dumped Arthur Andersen, its auditor for 60 years, in favor of PwC. And given the huge losses Enron eventually suffered on the LJM and LJM2 deals, the energy trader's shareholders may target PwC's deep pockets as a source of restitution in the biggest bankruptcy in American history.
The fairness opinions were necessary because Enron's top financial officers -- most notably Fastow, the managing partner of LJM and LJM2 -- were in charge on both sides of these transactions. Indeed, both of PwC's fairness opinions were addressed to Ben F. Glisan Jr., a Fastow subordinate who became Enron's treasurer in May, 2000. Glisan left Enron in November, 2001, after the company discovered he had invested in the first LJM partnership.
Since the deals were not arms-length negotiations between independent parties, Pricewaterhouse was called in to assure Enron's board that the company was getting fair value. Indeed, minutes from a special board meeting on June 28, 1999, show that Fastow used PwC's fairness review as a selling point for the first deal.
That complex transaction was designed to let Enron hedge against a drop in value of its investment in 5.4 million shares of Rhythms NetConnections, an Internet service provider. PwC did not work for LJM at the time it ruled on that deal's fairness for Enron. The firm valued LJM's compensation to Enron at between $164 million and $204 million.
The second deal, involving LJM2, was designed to indirectly hedge the value of other Enron investments. That deal was even more complex, and PwC's May 5, 2000, opinion does not put a dollar value on it. Instead, it says, "it is our opinion that, as of the date hereof, the financial consideration associated with the transaction is fair to the Company [Enron] from a financial point of view."
"CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE."
Some documents associated with LJM2 identified Pricewaterhouse as the partnership's auditor. A December, 1999, memo prepared by Merrill Lynch to help sell a $200 million private placement of LJM2 partnership interests listed the firm as LJM2's auditor. In fact, KPMG was the auditor. The PwC spokesman says his firm didn't even bid for the LJM2 audit contract. Merrill Lynch declined to comment on the erroneous document.
The PwC spokesman acknowledges that congressional investigators have been in touch with the firm. "We are cooperating with the [Energy & Commerce] Committee," he says. On Jan. 31, the New York-based auditor said it would spin off its consulting arm, in part because of concerns that Enron has raised about the accounting profession. "We recognize that there is a crisis of confidence," spokesman David Nestor told reporters. As probers give Pricewaterhouse a closer look, that crisis could become far more real for the Big Five's No. 1.
By Mike McNamee in Washington, with Heather Timmons in New York
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht