Chair and Chief Executive of Pan-African Investment and Research Services, Dr Iraj Abedian, has strong views on what should happen to KPMG as well as the systemic effect the current case being investigated by the Independent Auditors’ Regulatory Board (IRBA) has and will have on the South African economy.
“The South African IRBA now has to show its teeth, otherwise the entire audit industry will be left under a cloud of suspicion hereafter. This is a serious matter. A slap on the wrist is not going to do it,” Abedian told Daily Maverick.
Xanti Payi, economist and head of research at Nascence Advisory and Research, told Daily Maverick that “we have seen this movie before in the US. It was this sort of thing that led to the financial collapse, which started with Enron and their auditors, and came to climax with financial institutions and the junk products they peddled to the collapse we saw”.
Payi added that many South African firms participated in, if not spearheaded, “the cause for a closed and exclusionary economy” and that this had the effect of distorting economic outcomes and eroding people’s trust in the country’s economic and financial system.
Abedian said that over the past few years, various sources, including political leaders inside and outside Parliament, had mentioned “figures running into billions of rands that the Oakbay Group has defrauded and even repatriated via illicit financial flows”.
The office of the Public Protector, in its report on the State of Capture, had alluded to such transactions, said Abedian.
“She (Thuli Madonsela) found it necessary to motivate the establishment of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the related matters. Given the gravity of the political economy impact, and in the light of the estimated and/or suspected amount of public money involved, KPMG and the entire SA audit industry have much to answer for. So, if the IRBA fails to recognise the gravity of the case, it will harm the industry and the SA economy for decades to come,” warned Abedian.
Weighing on the mind of IRBA might be the issue of “too big too fail”, but this was simply not applicable in the case of audit firms:
“I would argue that the reverse applies in the case of the audit firms. As highlighted in the case of Arthur Andersen, the bigger the firm, the more necessary it becomes to rescue the industry and not the firm. No firm is ever bigger than the issue of the role of external auditors in a market economy,” he said.
If KPMG was not sent packing, or at least sent packing from South Africa, Abedian said, “then understandingly no one will be blamed for distrusting the audit views of KPMG and for that matter the auditors in general. This is a fairly simple and elementary logic of the entire audit profession. Audit is all about trust and legitimacy of compliance with the spirit of the audit process.”
The country needed to await the verdict of the IRBA and hope that it would do “the ethical thing, tough as it might be”.
He added that there were three issues that needed clear resolution; the suspension of KPMG’s licence as a firm (at least in South Africa); the suspension of the specific KPMG auditors and professional forensic staff who had over the years been involved in the many Oakbay companies (and maybe others) that had engaged in unethical bookkeeping and accounting practices, and the penalty that KPMG needed to pay for having caused a multibillion rand loss to South African taxpayers.
Abedian said it was clear that over the years KPMG had been aware of “all kinds of questionable transactions” in various companies in the Gupta Group.
“That it chose to remain silent for so long is a serious matter of unethical conduct,” he said, adding that KMPG’s conduct “had the hallmarks of Arthur Anderson written all over it”.
(It was the 2001 Enron scandal that sounded the death knell for Arthur Andersen, after 89 years in business as one of the “big five” US accounting firms.)
“KPMG may well end up going the same way. This is both necessary and constructive for the industry and for the economy,” said Abedian.
That KPMG had decided, via its own internal processes, to drop the Oakbay audit “speaks volumes” and this even before revelations in the #GuptaLeaks emails.
“It appears that the rising levels of unethical bookkeeping and accounting practices finally became too much even for KPMG. So it had to drop the client. The current denial of impropriety and unethical audit by KPMG is understandably soft and indicative of serious worries.”
Abedian said McKinsey’s case was somewhat different with regard to the order of magnitude.
“They are a consulting firm, and do not claim to abide by any ethical standards. If proven that they have engaged in this (and I do not know the details), then McKinsey’s has much to answer to.”
KPMG, with regard to its “independent” investigation conducted for SARS and Commissioner Tom Moyane into the so-called “rogue unit” in 2014, has managed to side-step serious questions about the findings of its report, handed to Moyane on 4 December 2015.
One of the recommendations of that report was that former SARS Commissioner Pravin Gordhan be probed for his alleged role in the establishment of the unit.
Taxpayers forked out R23-million for the report which has still not been made public. It was presented to Moyane with the strange proviso that it not be used “for the resolution or disposition of any disputes or controversies thereto and is not to be disclosed, quoted or referenced, in whole or in part”.
Only a few individuals were given a copy, including Moyane, members of the Kroon Board (appointed by then Minister Nhlanhla Nene who was to be fired by President Zuma on 9 December 2015), SARS lawyers as well as Nene and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas.
The report was then leaked to the Sunday Times. The paper claimed it had based some of its stories – which it was later forced to retract by the Press Ombudsman – on a draft of the KPMG report.
The report has subsequently been revealed to have been seriously compromised by the inclusion of at least 16 points in its recommendations and findings copied and pasted from recommendations made by SARS’ own legal representatives Mashiane, Moodley and Monama.
In other words, SARS’ legal firm appears to have instructed KPMG as to which findings to make in what should have been an “independent” report.
KPMG had been contracted by SARS and Moyane in December 2014 to conduct the forensic investigation.
Three months afterwards, KPMG was appointed as auditors for global multinational British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the companies that would feature prominently in the “rogue unit” investigation. It is not clear whether KPMG alerted SARS to this conflict of interest.
In the end KPMG, in the report handed to Moyane, named every other “suspect” in the “rogue unit” saga apart from BAT.
KPMG’s response to questions by Daily Maverick to CEO Trevor Hoole in 2016 read:
“Due to confidentiality constraints as per the agreement with our client we unfortunately cannot divulge any information to you or discuss any aspect with you. Please direct any questions that you may (have) to SARS.”
Questions to SARS too remained unanswered.
Hoole later defended the KPMG report saying that it has merely been a “documentary review”; however, a draft of the KPMG report revealed that KPMG auditor Johan van der Walt had been tasked to work with SARS’ Advocate Martin Brassey to “capture oral evidence” as well as consider the findings of two other committees, the Kanyane (appointed by Pillay) and Sikhakhane panels.
A letter dated 30 November 2015 signed by David Maphakela, on behalf of Mashiane, Moodley and Monama, unequivocally informed the legal team representing a former SARS official who had been implicated in the “rogue unit” scandal that “further and as part of the forensic investigation, KPMG was mandated to advise SARS on any criminal or civil litigation to be pursued against any SARS official or 3rd party”.
It is clear from these communications that the KPMG report was much more than a mere documentary review – at least as far as SARS was concerned.
The scope of the KPMG investigation stretched as far back as 2003 and general procedures agreed to with SARS included considering and perusing existing reports and evidence collated in the preparations of the Sikhakhane and Kanyane committees, the consideration of legal papers, interviews with SARS officials “that might be considered to have knowledge”, draft affidavits, the identification and collation of electronic information including computers, cellphones, tablets and information on SARS servers and, most important, to independently “consider and review collected information and evidence to determine allegations”.
When KPMG was appointed as a contractor, Moyane’s trusted No 2, Jonas Makwakwa (now on suspension after media revelations in May 2016 that the FIC had flagged suspicious payments amounting to R1.3-million into Makwakwa and his girlfriend, SARS employee Kelly Anne-Elskie’s private bank accounts) and the SARS Steering Committee had been nominated “as representatives of SARS” .
KPMG and Hoole, after Gordhan had publicly attacked the auditing firm saying it was “supposed to come up with facts”, later defended the report, saying that was only a draft “until the client confirms to us that all matters have been addressed and that the report has been through the entity’s governance processes and is ready to be issued. A report may well be considered by KPMG to be complete or final but prior to being issued the client needs to notify us that it has been accepted by them.”
A recap of events that followed the allegations of a “rogue unit” in SARS reveals the gravity and the serious collateral damage of the allegations that first began to be published in the Sunday Times in November 2014 (two months after Moyane’s appointment) and that ultimately devastated SARS’ senior leadership as it had existed until then.
During that period, SARS had been regarded as one of the most efficient government institutions and was, in fact, the engine that kept the economic cogs turning.
Six months later the entire SARS executive committee including acting commissioner Ivan Pillay, his special adviser, Yolisa Pikie, group executive Johann van Loggerenberg, head of strategic planning, Peter Richer, chief operating officer, Barry Hore, modernisation and strategy head, Jérôme Frey, anti-corruption and security head, Clifford Collings, as well as spokespeople Adrian Lackay and Marika Muller, were gone, all felled by Moyane, a close associate of President Jacob Zuma.
SARS too has featured as a focal point and key battleground in the State Capture narrative and in the later tensions that arose between Moyane, Hawks head Mthandazo Ntlemeza (since suspended) and the relentless hounding of Pravin Gordhan since his re-appointment as Finance Minister after Nene’s firing and the appointment by President Zuma of Gupta greaser, Des van Rooyen, who lasted only a weekend in the top job.
The political fallout in the slipstream of the “rogue unit” saga has been equally as devastating for South Africa and the ruling party, with President Zuma reshuffling his Cabinet in March, replacing Finance Minister Gordhan with the Gupta-linked Malusi Gigaba.
On Monday, former KPMG chief excutive Moses Kgosana, who attended the Gupta 2013 wedding, resigned from his post at Alexander Forbes where he was due to take up the position as the group’s chairperson on 3 August.
Alexander Forbes, in a statement, said, “Mr Kgosana felt that the demands on his time in the role of chairperson of the company whilst attending to these allegations will interfere with his deliverable expectations. Alexander Forbes welcomes this decisive action.”
Bernard Agulhas, CEO of the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors, said that it was important that the board take seriously allegations against KPMG in the public domain “which are in the public interest”.
“The IRBA has since December 2015 been rolling out measures to increase transparency, improve independence and enhance audit quality.” DM
Photo: Atul and Ajay Gupta.
"Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon." ~ Paul Brandt