Certified Public Accountants have countless ethical responsibilities to their clients. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Code of Professional Conduct is almost 200 pages long, containing detailed and dense descriptions of the many ways in which CPAs can put themselves in danger of losing their professional license and their career. But one of the most dangerous provisions in the code for CPAs is one that can encompass a wide range of professional – and personal – indiscretions: “acts discreditable to the profession.”
Such acts are prohibited in Section 400.1 of the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. Similarly, an “act discreditable to the public accounting profession” is considered unprofessional conduct under the Illinois Public Accounting Act that could subject a CPA to disciplinary action by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR).
But what kind of acts bring discredit to the accounting profession? Are they limited to a CPA’s performance of their professional engagements, or can they extend into private decisions or actions that do not directly relate to the services they provide clients? These open questions, and the broad contours of the rule, should give every CPA pause as they evaluate their conduct in all spheres of their life.
Personal Choices, Professional Consequences
The AICPA Code does not clearly define what constitutes “acts discreditable.” However, it does provide specific examples of such conduct, most of which are relatively obvious and baseline ethical violations that relate to work performed for clients or their professional interactions with the public generally, such as:
- Negligence in the preparation of financial statements or records.
- Failure to respond or comply with requests or obligations imposed by governmental bodies, commissions, and regulatory agencies.
- Failure to follow specified government standards, guides, procedures, statutes, rules, and regulations in conducting a governmental audit.
- Unauthorized disclosure of an employer’s confidential information.
- Unauthorized removal or use of client files.
- False, misleading, or deceptive acts in marketing or promoting their professional services.
But Section 400.1 of the code also specifically identifies proscribed conduct that does not directly relate to their services for or interactions with clients, government bodies, or the general public. Instead, they involve personal choices and behaviors that, according to the AICPA, reflect poorly on – and bring discredit – to the profession as a whole:
- Discrimination and harassment in employment practices.
- Failure to file a personal tax return or pay a tax liability.
- Cheating on the CPA exam.
Disciplinary Action For “Social Crimes”
These specified personal transgressions seem like no-brainers in terms of exposing a CPA to licensing and ethics trouble. The problem is that AICPA has left the door open for the possibility that other personal conduct could constitute an “act discreditable.” And state licensing bodies have shown that they have no problem walking through that door.
A 2016 study looked at how “social crimes,” that is, those that do not directly involve a CPA’s performance of their professional duties, are often the basis for disciplinary action. Such acts include driving under the influence, nonpayment of child support, and drug possession. These violations comprised 10.3 percent of the disciplinary action taken by state boards of accountancy in California, Illinois, New York, Texas between 2008–2014.
Other federal or state convictions, including financial felonies and misdemeanors unrelated to professional engagements, make up 27% of the disciplinary actions. These include such things as money laundering, drug dealing, immigration fraud, and assault.
But if something like driving under the influence, as serious a transgression as it may be, brings “discredit” to the accounting profession, it raises the possibility that other conduct equally unrelated to the actual work of a CPA could be the basis of professional discipline. For example, if a CPA was involved in the attempted coup and terrorist attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, would that be a “discreditable act” regardless of any criminal charges? Even the possibility of such blowback should make CPAs think long and hard about their actions, even when they are off the clock.
Louis Fine: Chicago CPA License Defense Attorney
If you are a CPA, the moment the IDFPR contacts you is the moment you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will get you back to your clients and your career.
Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.