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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of New York

Friday, August 9, 2019

Former PCAOB Inspections Leader And KPMG Executive Director Sentenced For Scheme To Steal Confidential PCAOB Information In Order To Fraudulently Improve KPMG’s PCAOB Inspection Results

Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that CYNTHIA HOLDER, a former Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”) Inspections Leader and KPMG Executive Director, was sentenced today to 8 months in federal prison for participating in a scheme to defraud the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) and the PCAOB by obtaining, disseminating, and using confidential lists of which KPMG audits the PCAOB would be reviewing so that KPMG could improve its performance in PCAOB inspections, the results of which were shared with, and utilized by, the SEC in carrying out its governmental functions.  HOLDER pled guilty October 16, 2018, before U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, who imposed today’s sentence.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said:  “As a former employee of the PCAOB, Cynthia Holder understood the importance of the organization’s work:  to protect investors and the public by overseeing the audits of public companies.  But she undermined the Board’s and the SEC’s regulatory missions when she stole confidential inspection information and provided it to KPMG, her new employer.  KPMG, in turn, used this confidential information to cheat on PCAOB inspections.  Holder’s sentence should be an example to others that stealing confidential information and corrupting regulatory processes are crimes that this Office takes very seriously.”

According to the allegations contained in the Indictment filed against HOLDER and statements made in related court filings and proceedings:

The PCAOB is a nonprofit corporation overseen by the SEC that inspects the audit work performed by registered accounting firms (“Auditors”) with respect to the financial statements of publicly traded companies (“Issuers”).  The PCAOB inspects the largest U.S. accounting firms on an annual basis.  As part of the inspection process, the PCAOB chooses a selection of audits performed by the accounting firm for a closer review.  Until shortly before an inspection occurs, the PCAOB does not disclose which audits are being inspected, or the focus areas for those inspections, because it wants to ensure that an Auditor does not perform additional work or modify its work papers in anticipation of an inspection.  Following the completion of an inspection, the PCAOB issues an Inspection Report containing any negative findings or “comments” with respect to both the specific audits reviewed and the accounting firm more generally.  The PCAOB transmits these Inspection Reports to the SEC, which utilizes them in carrying out its agency functions.     

KPMG is one of the largest accounting firms in the world.  In recent years, KPMG fared poorly in PCAOB inspections and in 2014 received approximately twice as many comments as its competitor firms.  By 2015, KPMG was engaged in efforts to improve its performance in PCAOB inspections, including but not limited to recruiting and hiring former PCAOB personnel such as HOLDER and HOLDER’s co-conspirator, Brian Sweet. 

KPMG’s efforts to improve inspection results, however, were not limited to legitimate means.  Instead, between 2015 and 2017, HOLDER, David Middendorf, Thomas Whittle, Jeffrey Wada, Sweet, and others worked to illicitly acquire valuable confidential PCAOB information concerning which KPMG audits would be inspected, in an effort to game the system and improve inspection results.  For example, after Sweet began employment at KPMG, but while HOLDER was still employed by the PCAOB, HOLDER fed Sweet confidential PCAOB information about certain pending inspections.  HOLDER did so while simultaneously seeking employment at KPMG.  During the pendency of her efforts to obtain employment at KPMG, HOLDER – in violation of PCAOB rules – continued to work on KPMG inspections at the PCAOB.  Once she secured a job at KPMG, HOLDER stole valuable confidential information on her way out of the PCAOB and then passed it on to Sweet, her new boss at KPMG.     

In March 2016, HOLDER obtained the PCAOB’s confidential 2016 inspection selections for KPMG from Wada, who was still working at the PCAOB but who had recently been passed over for a promotion.  Wada – who was not responsible for KPMG inspections at the PCAOB

– accessed and stole valuable confidential information from the PCAOB and passed it on to HOLDER.  HOLDER, in turn, provided the 2016 inspection selections to Sweet, who passed them to Middendorf, Whittle, and others.  Middendorf, Whittle, Sweet, and others then agreed to launch a stealth program to “re-review” the audits that had been selected.  In order to cover up their illicit conduct, the KPMG engagement partners were given a false explanation for the re-reviews.  The stealth re-review program allowed KPMG to double-check its audit work, strengthen its work papers, and, in some cases, identify deficiencies or perform new audit work that had not been done during the live audit.

In January 2017, Wada, who had again been passed over for promotion at the PCAOB, again stole valuable confidential PCAOB information, misappropriating a preliminary list of confidential 2017 inspection selections for KPMG audits and passing it on to HOLDER.  At the same time, Wada provided Holder with his resume and sought her assistance in helping him to acquire employment at KPMG.  Sweet shared the preliminary inspection selections provided by Wada with Whittle and Britt, while noting that the information was only preliminary.  Whittle’s response was to ask Sweet to confirm that they would get the final list as well.

In February 2017, Wada texted HOLDER saying, “I have the grocery list. . . . All the things you’ll need for this year.”  Wada then spoke to HOLDER and provided her with the full confidential 2017 final inspection selections.  HOLDER again shared the stolen information with Sweet, who shared it with Middendorf, Whittle, and others.  Middendorf, Whittle, and Sweet agreed to inform engagement partners on the list so that extra attention could be paid to these audits in light of the forthcoming PCAOB inspections. 

In 2017, a KPMG partner who received early notice that her engagement was on the confidential 2017 inspection list reported the matter, as a result of which KPMG’s Office of General Counsel launched an internal investigation.  Thereafter, HOLDER and Sweet took a number of steps to destroy or fabricate evidence relevant to the investigation.  For example, HOLDER deleted a number of relevant text messages, emails, and documents, and said she was going to purchase a “burner phone” so her conversations could not be monitored.  Similarly, Sweet burned evidence of the 2017 inspection list and provided a falsified version of the list to KPMG counsel.

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In addition to a prison term, HOLDER, 53, of Houston, Texas, was sentenced to 2 years of supervised release. Restitution amount was deferred to a later date.

Mr. Berman praised the investigative work of the United States Postal Inspection Service and also thanked the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has brought an administrative proceeding against Holder. 

This case is being handled by the Office’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Rebecca Mermelstein, Jordan Estes, Martin Bell, and Margaret Graham are in charge of the prosecution.

Financial Fraud
Press Release Number: 
Updated August 9, 2019