It's spring and a consumer's fancy turns to taxes and, from there, to accountants, those sticklers for detail who help us stay on the right side of the tax code. But unlike other professions that have their fingers on our literal or figurative pulse, accountants are a pretty lightly regulated bunch and finding a good one can be difficult.
Accountants (properly known as Certified Public Accountants or CPAs) complain to their clients and each other that the IRS is constantly looking over their shoulder but they don't appear to be as fearful of disciplinary action as physicians, lawyers, stock brokers and other licensed professionals.
Further, the organizations that handle complaints against them tend to do so in the dark – with no public disclosure, making it hard for consumers to know which ones to avoid.
This may not sound like a problem, since we often think of accountants as studious, bookish types with owlish glasses and an obsessive drive to line up all the yellow pencils in perfect order. But, speaking personally, I have encountered more than a few accountants who don't fit this somewhat idealistic image.
A few examples compiled from a long lifetime of sweating out various financial snafus:
- The Tucson accountant who urged me to "marry" his daughter so I could deduct her and her three children from my tax return. (The marriage would be "strictly business" and the arrangement was working well for other clients, he claimed).
- The Virginia accountant who had some weird scheme involving his house in the Bahamas. As I understood it, he would arrange it so I could deduct the rental fee as a business expense. I passed.
- A Maryland CPA who, while acting as my company's comptroller, made off with nearly $300,000. He didn't really embezzle it, an act that implies subterfuge. He just took it and didn't bother telling me. His employees later admitted they knew it was happening and felt bad about it.
- A Virginia accountant who had lured me away from my longtime tax preparer and charged me twice as much to finally finish my return with only seconds to spare and many details overlooked. She then fired me on Christmas Eve, saying I didn't fit her business plan.
- The Tennessee acounting firm that charged my non-profit organization $900 upfront and a few hundred per month thereafter while never preparing a return or doing much of anything else. I finally did the return myself.
The critic is criticized
Now and then I mention this odd chain of events to friends and colleagues. "It's just you," is the usual reply. "You're hard to get along with. Nobody likes you."
Maybe so, but abandoning clients, not to mention trying to enlist them in fraudulent schemes or openly stealing from them is behavior that is expressly prohibited for lawyers, financial advisors, physicians and others who are supposed to be protecting their clients' interests.
In a few of the above cases, I looked for someone to complain to. You know, like the accountancy ethics board or some such organization. In the case involving the $300,000, I called the FBI.
"You're in Virginia?" the FBI agent asked. "Yes," I replied.
"And the accountant is in Maryland?" the agent asked, seemingly hoping he could fob the case off onto the Maryland office.
"Well, I don't know where he is now. That's part of the problem," I said. The conversation basically went on like that for awhile and the agent promised to get back to me. That's was 30 years ago. I'm starting to think he's never going to call.
Licensing agencies in most states
While these cases may be unusual, they do seem to point to a need for tighter and more public enforcement of whatever standards there may be.
There is, it turns out, something called the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). It describes itself as "a forum for the nation’s 55 State Boards of Accountancy, which administer the Uniform CPA Examination, license more than 650,000 Certified Public Accountants and regulate the practice of public accountancy in the United States."
NASBA in turn operates something called the Center for the Public Trust (CPT), which sponsors "ethical awareness" events, student video competitions and quite a few golf-centered programs. While no doubt laudatory, these activities don't provide a clear path for consumers wrestling with an ethical breach by their accountant.
California is well known for regulating nearly everything that moves and does indeed have something called the California Board of Accountancy. which licenses CPAs and has a form on its website where consumers can file complaints. However, the CBA advises that many complaints it receives belong elsewhere, or nowhere:
"Complaints beyond the jurisdiction of the CBA are closed. These include, but are not limited to, matters concerning fee disputes, employer/employee relations, and complaints involving unsubstantiated allegations from anonymous sources," according to its site.
A lukewarm approach
Compare this rather lukewarm approach to ethics enforcement to the organization that licenses Certified Financial Planners, which prominently displays its ethical requirements and enforcement on its website:
"The steps CFP Board has taken to enforce the Code and Standards — including releasing public disciplinary information — distinguishes CFP certification from other credentials in the financial services profession," the board boasts.
We asked an experienced and well-known auditor about regulations of accountants and got a rather legalistic answer.
"Any complaints by consumers go to the state board or the professional association. They would be responsible for taking action for any violations of their code of ethics and practice irregularities. If a consumer has a complaint or wants to check on complaints filed they would have to contact the state board or the professional association," the auditor said, asking that we not use his name.
"Accountants are regulated and as to whether they are doing a good job is highly judgmental," he concluded.
Consumers need more information
Consumer organizations and sites don't have a lot to say about CPAs either. AARP steers members to its free tax preparation services, the Consumer Federation of America is silent on the subject, and Public Citizen talks about taxes but not the accountants who often prepare the returns.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is mum and so is ConsumerAffairs.com. Even Rip Off Report, a vast trove of gripes about nearly everything, has next to nothing about CPAs.
Yelp, on the other hand, has a good assortment of accountant reviews, with most comments focusing on speed, reliability and client service – exactly the elements most consumers want to know about when they're looking for an accountant.
Admittedly, these ratings don't indicate the technical expertise of individual practitioners but but speed, courtesy and responsiveness are the keys to consumer satisfaction in just about any business or professional service you can think of.
So, lacking help from government and trade organizations, Yelp may be the best resource consumers have at the moment.
Or it may just be that I am hard to work with and nobody likes me.