U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Jo White. (Seth Wenig / AP)

The head of the Securities and Exchange Commission — an agency involved in regulating the financial industry — has announced her intention to replace the current chair of a group formed to keep auditors of publicly traded companies honest with someone likely to be more amenable to corporate interests, reports David Dayen at The Intercept.

Congress created the group in question — the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board — in 2002 in response to the Enron scandal, in which the auditing firm Arthur Andersen was alleged to have helped Enron defraud investors by falsifying accounting records. The PCAOB’s function is to make sure auditors remain independent of the companies they monitor and do their jobs.

Just four firms — Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG — are in charge of virtually all the auditing of public companies in the United States. And, Dayen writes, “they often have lucrative business consulting relationships with the firms they audit. With only self-policing, auditors have every incentive to put their future profits ahead of the truth.”

Current PCAOB chief James Doty has been “one of the most persistent regulatory reformers in Washington,” Dayen continues:

Since January 2011, Doty, a former SEC general counsel under George H.W. Bush, has served as PCAOB chair. He has earned respect from both sides of the aisle, as evidenced by a letter recommending his re-appointment signed by numerous academics, former SEC chairs of both parties, Vanguard CEO John Bogle and Paul Volcker, the former chair of the Federal Reserve.

The letter’s signers commend Doty for negotiating agreements to oversee Chinese auditors of firms that trade in U.S. stock markets, improving the PCAOB’s ability to conduct auditing inspections and creating the Center for Economic Analysis, which uses high-quality research to inform the regulator’s actions.

His impact can also be seen in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s criticism that he has placed “new burdens” on its members.

Much of Doty’s best work has come outside the rule-making process, because the five-member board has been deadlocked on most key issues. While Doty and Steven Harris, a former aide to Sarbanes-Oxley author Paul Sarbanes, support stiffer rules, board members Jay Hanson and Jeanette Franzel have consistently opposed them. Lewis Ferguson, a Democrat and former corporate lawyer at Williams & Connolly, is the swing vote. That has put him in a position to prevent Doty’s reforms from seeing the light of day.

This has hampered Doty’s efforts to require individual auditors to sign their names to company audits, and to rotate auditing firms away from their clients every 10 years, so they don’t establish a cozy relationship with their employers.

Doty’s term ends in October, and PCAOB board member Lewis Ferguson wants the job. Democratic SEC Commissioners Kara Stein and Luis Aguilar want to see Doty reinstated, and he would like to keep the position.

But SEC Chair Mary Jo White — whom President Obama selected — told reporters earlier this month that she is “identifying interested and qualified candidates.”

Dayen continues:

Liberal groups believe that White’s husband’s position [at law firm with clients on Wall Street] presents a conflict of interest when it comes to choosing the next chair. John White’s law firm appears to be sensitive to these ties: After openly promoting his position on the PCAOB Standing Advisory Group, Cravath, Swaine & Moore deleted any mention of it on their website when a news story about the conflict was published.

Early this summer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized White in a letter to her, saying her “leadership of the Commission has been extremely disappointing.” Warren charged White with failing to finalize certain parts of the Dodd-Frank financial law, with allowing settlements without admission of guilt, and too frequently recusing herself because of her husband’s activities, among other things.

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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