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    Big accounting firms turn down this count

    Citing their independence, the largest firms shun the media's ballot effort.

    By ADAM C. SMITH and HELEN HUNTLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    Media outlets eager to examine Florida's presidential ballots hoped to lend more credibility to the effort by using an independent accounting firm.

    Trouble is, they can't find any takers among America's major accounting firms.

    "Put it this way: There was not a lot of enthusiasm," said Bill Hamilton, enterprise editor at the Washington Post, which is working with the St. Petersburg Times and others on the ballot review.

    "We've been unable to find anybody interested in doing it," he said.

    That means the monumental job of determining what a full manual recount in Florida would have shown -- how many swinging, dimpled and partially punched chads went for Gore and how many for Bush -- will likely be left mainly to a small army of reporters from various newspapers and other media outlets.

    It also means none of the Big Five accounting firms will have to contend with a politically sticky job all but certain to be second-guessed by Republicans or Democrats or both.

    "We've declined the opportunity," KPMG Peat Marwick spokesman George Ledwith said diplomatically.

    Ledwith said that accountants, as well as regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission, are especially mindful of their independence.

    "This kind of engagement would tend to raise an independence issue since many partners would be registered in one political party or another," Ledwith said. "By definition of independence, they could not be considered truly independent in their work on this. If the work was challenged, it could be pointed out that they were respectively registered to one party or another."

    The Miami Herald, which is conducting its own statewide ballot review, has hired a smaller accounting firm, BDO Seidman, to audit its tally of uncounted ballots across the state's 67 counties.

    Steve Silber, a spokesman for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was unaware of any discussion about a ballot review in Florida but was not surprised Big Five accounting firms would take a pass.

    "There's a natural reluctance among auditors and accountants, people who pride themselves on their independence, to associate themselves with what may be seen as partisan politics. There's sort of an aversion to engaging ourselves in what may be seen to be a partisan endeavor," Silber said. "We'd prefer to stay on neutral ground."

    That's not to say accountants and auditors are apolitical.

    Accountants spent more than $11-million on contributions to federal candidates in the 2000 election cycle, 37 percent for Democrats and 62 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Among George W. Bush's "Pioneers," people who raised at least $100,000 for his campaign, are executives with Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Another PricewaterhouseCoopers official gave $1,000 toward Gore's Florida recount effort.

    BDO Seidman, the firm hired by the Herald, this year gave more than $22,000 in political contributions, 80 percent to Democrats, the Center for Responsive Politics found.

    Precisely when and how the ballot examination will be conducted has yet to be determined. Florida law allows all ballots to be examined, but only elections officials can actually touch the ballots.

    Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman for the New York Times, said the goal will likely be to describe the ballots. For instance, of the punch card ballots where a machine counted no presidential vote, the review might find a certain number showed at least one corner punched through for Bush and a certain number for Gore.

    "We're not going to profess to divine the intent of the voters," she said.

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