A PricewaterhouseCoopers audit partner has been charged with failing to conduct proper audits of a venture capital fund from which biotech investor Steven Burrill looted millions of dollars.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Adrian D. Beamish signed off on audit opinions for Burrill Life Sciences Capital Fund III for four consecutive years even though Burrill provided no rationale for payments from the $283 million fund to other entities he owned or controlled.
The payments were mischaracterized as advances on future management fees and were used by Burrill to pay his own expenses and finance his other businesses, the SEC said in an order instituting administrative proceedings against Beamish.
An administrative judge will decide whether Beamish should be suspended from appearing or practicing before the SEC as an accountant. Burrill agreed in March to pay nearly $5.8 million to settle SEC charges that he stole $18 million in investor money from December 2007 to August 2013.
“Auditors perform a critical check on fraudulent conduct, especially when related party transactions are involved,” Jina L. Choi, director of the SEC’s San Francisco regional office, said in a news release. “We allege that Beamish’s repeated failure to exercise professional skepticism prevented him from recognizing that Burrill was stealing investor money from the fund.”
PwC said in a statement that Beamish “will contest the SEC’s charges with PwC’s full support. The payments to the fund manager challenged by the SEC were repeatedly and accurately disclosed, year after year, in financial statements provided by the fund to its highly sophisticated investors.”
Beamish, an audit partner at PwC’s San Jose, Calif., office, specializes in the pharmaceutical life sciences and venture capital industries. According to the SEC, he became aware as early as the audit of Fund III’s year-end 2009 financial statements that Burrill had been diverting money to his other companies under the guise of advanced management fees.
Beamish allegedly failed to “inquire whether Burrill had the authority to take the unusual payments” or scrutinize the rationale for the payments.
By the end of 2012, the advanced management fee balance had grown to nearly $18 million. For the year-end audit, the PwC audit team proposed that the fund disclose the balance as “prepaid expenses and other receivables” and add that “This amount exceeds the expected future management fee expenses for the remaining contractual life of the fund.”
After the fund’s management objected, “Beamish agreed that the additional disclosure need not be included in the fund’s financial statements,” the SEC said.