REUTERS - The Chinese units of the "Big Four" accounting firms are trying to reach a settlement with U.S. securities regulators to resolve a long-running dispute over regulators' access to audit documents, according to a regulatory filing released on Monday.
News of the settlement talks comes just a few months after a Securities and Exchange Commission Administrative Law Judge handed down a harsh 112-page ruling that chastised the firms for failing to share audit work that SEC investigators believe could help them uncover accounting fraud.
The judge in January had ordered the China units of the Big Four firms - KPMG, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst and Young - to be suspended for six months from auditing U.S. listed companies.
He also censured Dahua, which was previously a member of the BDO International network, but did not recommend a suspension.
The Big Four's six-month suspension has been on hold since the January ruling because the firms opted to appeal the decision before the full five-member SEC commission.
Monday's filing, which was posted on the SEC's website, marks the first time that regulators have publicly revealed they are involved in ongoing settlements talks with the firms.
For years, auditors in China have declined to hand over copies of their work papers to U.S. regulators amid fears they would violate Chinese secrecy laws.
They have urged the U.S. and China to work out their differences through diplomatic channels.
The judge's decision marked a big victory for the SEC, which has brought numerous enforcement actions in recent years against Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges amid a rash of accounting scandals.
But it raised the stakes for the four accounting firms. If they cannot hash out a more favorable deal with the SEC, then it could make it exceedingly difficult for many companies in China to find a new auditor during the suspension period.
Monday's filing was released in connection with a mutual request by the SEC and the firms for a 90-day extension to file legal briefs for the pending appeal.
In it, the SEC revealed that it has been in settlement talks with the Big Four firms but that the talks "to date have not included Dahua."
However, the filing notes that "the resolution of some or all of the proceedings" with the Big Four "could affect remedies" that would be addressed in the Dahua-related matter.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Ken Wills