NEW YORK (Reuters) - A global consulting company that rose from the ashes of the destroyed accounting firm Arthur Andersen is now facing a scandal of its own.
The problems at Huron Consulting Group Inc (HURN.O) may reflect a corporate culture that carried over from Arthur Andersen, the firm that collapsed in connection with the Enron Corp scandal in 2002, legal and corporate governance experts say.
Chicago-based Huron was founded by two dozen Andersen partners. Gary Holdren, once a senior Andersen partner and a member of its executive committee, on Friday resigned as Huron’s chairman and CEO after Huron said it would restate more than three years of earnings because of misreported costs related to acquisitions.
The chief financial officer and chief accounting officer are also departing.
The company also said it was investigating its allocation of chargeable hours in response to an inquiry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Huron did not return calls requesting interviews.
Huron shares lost more than two-thirds of their value on Monday.
Attorney Hamilton Lindley of the Kendall Law Group, a Dallas-based law firm, said he expected a class-action complaint to be filed on behalf of shareholders this week.
“It’s natural to look into whether the culture of Arthur Andersen bled over into the culture of Huron Consulting,” Lindley said. “That’s a question we will pursue in our investigation.”
Huron’s audit committee discovered shareholders of four businesses Huron bought redistributed portions of their payments among themselves and to certain Huron employees. Huron said payments were not “kickbacks” to Huron managers.
Andersen’s corporate culture emphasized maximizing fee revenue rather than a client’s best interests, and it may have gotten “transferred” to Huron, said Dr. Barbara Lay Toffler, author of the 2003 book “Final Accounting: Ambition, Greed and the Fall of Arthur Andersen.”
“My reaction is, ‘Didn’t you learn your lesson once?’” said Toffler, who worked for Andersen for four years in the 1990s and was part of a group that reported to Holdren, the future Huron CEO.
She said Holdren started a Midwest consulting group within Andersen in response to a client’s request to create an outside monitor to ensure Drexel Burnham Lambert did not destroy documents while the investment bank was under investigation.
Andersen was then viewed as a trusted corporate watchdog. Holdren’s litigation services group evolved into a collection of consulting groups, including one focused on business fraud.
“It was a culture that simply wanted to bring in revenue, regardless of what they had to do to get it,” Toffler said.
Andersen tried to convert existing audit clients to a host of consulting services with little regard to emerging conflicts of interest, she added. For example, it tried to both sell internal audit services to clients and pitch Andersen as external auditors.
“Unfortunately, there probably were practices that became the way you do things at Andersen that simply got transferred — that Holdren and others transferred,” Toffler said, adding she spoke as an expert on Andersen rather than on Huron.
“For the time I was there working for these folks, no one ever asked me what did you do? They just wanted to know how much did you make on it?”
Huron had built a reputation as an expert on litigation and regulatory issues. It advised United Airlines UAUA.O on its bankruptcy and helped uncover accounting shortfalls at mortgage giant Fannie Mae, FNM.N which eventually led the SEC to charge Fannie Mae with fraud.
In 2007, Huron was named among BusinessWeek’s hot growth companies and last year was ranked on a Fortune list of 100 fastest-growing U.S. companies.
To be sure, the scandal could turn out to be a misunderstanding or a “colossal mistake,” said David Becher, an associate professor of finance at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and a fellow in the university’s corporate governance center.
But the fact that senior Huron executives resigned may lead to concerns that executives were trying to manipulate earnings by making it seem like they paid less then they really did for the companies they acquired, he said.
“They bill themselves as (experts who) help people get through these difficult regulatory environment post-Sarbanes Oxley,” said Becher, in reference to the corporate governance and accounting law passed after the Enron scandal. “You’d think they would know.”
The linked collapses of Enron and Andersen convinced regulators more scrutiny of corporate accounting was needed, with added outside controls. But such controls are inadequate, Becher said, if individuals decide to commit fraud.
“The controls were there, and when they caught it they did the right thing, but time will tell what was going on,” Becher said. “Why didn’t the board know before then? How was it able to go on for three-and-a-half years? Why didn’t the auditors catch this?”
Reporting by Nick Zieminski, editing by Leslie Gevirtz