Friday, August 1, 2008

Accounting firms can't help on tax

If policymakers think the big auditors are going to help them roll back tax avoidance, they may have a long wait

Don't let the fox guard the henhouse." It may be an old proverb, but many involved in financial regulation do not appear to be aware of it. Blinkered policymakers think that major accounting firms are somehow going to help them to stem the tide of tax avoidance. Such aspirations have little chance of becoming reality until major accounting firms are forced to put their own houses in order.

Earlier this year, Christian Aid (pdf) reported that big accounting firms are at the heart of a global tax avoidance industry. It showed how depriving governments of vital revenues for investment in social infrastructure can cause death and misery for millions. Big accounting firms are protected by a cocoon of secrecy and confidentiality laws, but some evidence of their activities is publicly available.

KPMG has been the subject of what the US justice department described as the "largest criminal tax case ever filed".

KPMG admitted that it engaged in fraudulent practices that enabled its clients to generate phoney losses. The firm collected huge fees and the tax authorities lost billions of dollars in tax revenues. The firm paid $456m in fines, but escaped closure. A number of its partners may face prosecutions.

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