John VanBeekum Miami Herald
The largest-ever lawsuit against an auditing firm is set to open Monday in a Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, pitting Big Four firm PwC against a trustee of the defunct Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corporation.
At stake: $5.5 billion.
The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by a trust formed following the bankruptcy of Ocala-based Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, which in the early 2000s was one of the nation’s largest mortgage companies. The firm was raided by federal agents in 2009 for its part in a seven-year, multibillion-dollar fraud scheme with Colonial BancGroup.
According to the lawsuit, the fraud went undetected by PwC, the independent public auditor in charge of auditing Colonial, as a result of “gross negligence.”
The $5.5 billion action is one of a wave of suits against major auditing firms, including PwC, in the aftermath of the 2009 banking crisis. Most have alleged faulty work, said Jonathan Perlman, equity partner at Miami-based firm Genovese Joblove & Battista, who has prosecuted several cases against auditing firms. A majority of the cases have settled, including a suit brought against PwC for the alleged negligent auditing of failed brokerage MF Global Holdings Ltd. PwC paid $65 million in a settlement.
Few of the suits have gone to trial, Perlman said.
Still, Steven Thomas, lead trial lawyer for the trust, said he is confident this suit will succeed.
Thomas, who has has obtained several multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts in cases involving negligent audits, said PwC’s alleged negligence is the “worst” of any case he’s had.
As early as 2002, six top executives at Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, including chairman Lee Farkas, colluded with two executives at Colonial to sign off on mortgage sales that didn’t exist. Colonial financed Taylor, Bean & Whitaker’s mortgages, but in order to bypass the federal lending limit, Colonial started registering loans from the mortgage company as sales instead.
Circumventing the lending limits allowed the fraud to grow exponentially as executives at each company worked to falsify documents and computer entries and shift money between Colonial bank accounts. Both Colonial and Taylor, Bean & Whitaker were raided on Aug. 3, 2009, and later filed for bankruptcy, leading to the sixth-largest banking failure in U.S. history.
Farkas was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Catherine Kissick at Colonial, who worked most closely with Farkas, received eight years in prison as part of a plea deal.