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Former SEC official shares insights with students

Lynn Turner, former chief accountant for the SEC, taught a two-week course at Lehigh.

For two weeks, Lehigh accounting students studied under the tutelage of one of the industry’s most prominent insiders.

Lynn Turner, the former chief accountant of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), taught a one-credit senior seminar this month. He not only gave context for the current economic upheaval, but also discussed accountants’ responsibilities to society.

Parveen Gupta, professor of accounting and department chair, co-taught the class with Turner.

“Mr. Turner’s status, background and perspective are particularly relevant given the current economic situation,” Gupta says.

During his two-week stint at Lehigh, Turner discussed ongoing economic events in a junior-level accounting class, while eating lunch with students and faculty, and at a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors.

Turner was the fifth speaker to present the annual Segal Distinguished Lecture, hosted by the College of Business and Economics. The series explores current events in the financial world through lectures given by accounting experts, such as Cynthia Cooper, the WorldCom whistle-blower. Other speakers have held prominent positions at public accounting firms, investment banks and oversight boards.

The series is named in honor of Andrew Segal ’67, CPA. He, Doug Lane ’67, president of Douglas C. Lane & Associates (DCLA), and Sarat Sethi ’92, CPA and principal of DCLA and vice chairman of the college’s board of advisors, are strong advocates and supporters of the series.

“There could not have been a more appropriate speaker during these difficult economic times than Lynn Turner,” Segal says. “He is one of the most visible members of our profession, has received numerous honors and recently appeared before Congress to address our current financial crisis.”

“One of … the toughest jobs in corporate America”

This year, Gupta changed the format of the speaker series from a single lecture to four, three-hour classes. Turner taught Tuesday and Thursday evenings from Nov. 4 though Nov. 11.

Segal, Lane and Sethi attended a portion of Turner’s third class, which addressed auditors’ responsibility to society.

In class, Turner explained that auditors ultimately serve those investing in the markets, and not the firms that hire them. Investors rely on them to provide accurate financial information.

After class ended at 10 p.m., students lingered for more than an hour, peppering Turner with questions. Despite the late hour, Turner answered their queries on topics ranging from the benefits of government-employed auditors to the unintended consequences of the controversial Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Turner had actively advocated for the act after he left the SEC in 2001.

In the other three classes, Turner discussed the interaction between politics and financial reporting, national and international financial reporting standards, and the role students will assume after graduation. Many of the students will work for public accounting firms and produce the financial data from which investors will base their decisions.

“I actually think that is one of—if not the —toughest jobs in corporate America today. You have to, in essence, audit and tell the public about the very people who are paying you,” Turner said.

At the end of the semester, students must submit a research paper to be graded by Gupta. James McBratney ’09, an accounting major, will write his paper on current litigation directed toward accounting firms. He stayed later Thursday night to thank Turner for teaching.

“It was very refreshing to hear the point of view of someone one the regulation side. As students, we rarely get to hear from people outside of the industry and academia. Hearing the other side really expanded my knowledge about accounting in general,” McBratney says.

An auspicious career

Gupta invited Turner to co-teach the course with him. They had encountered each other at professional conferences and during Gupta’s year-long appointment as the Academic Accounting Fellow in the Division of Corporation Finance at the SEC in 2006.

The SEC enforces and creates rulings that require companies to provide accurate information about their businesses to investors and require those who sell and trade securities to act honestly. Recently, Congress and many others have scrutinized the SEC’s practices.

Turner was the chief accountant of the SEC from July 1998 through August 2001. During his tenure, he battled with the former Big Five accounting firms over regulations on auditor independence.

In 2007, Turner was appointed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to the Treasury Committee on the Auditing Profession. He serves as a senior advisor to Kroll, Inc. and the board and audit committee of the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (COPERA). He is a trustee and chair of a mutual fund’s audit committee.

Between meetings, he speaks at colleges and universities throughout the country.

“When you sit down with a group of students and talk to them about a problem, it’s remarkable how often they can come up with what seems to be a very common sense and good approach to dealing with something that others—politicians or business executives or whomever—struggle with,” he says. “I think that’s been true at Lehigh, and it’s been true at almost every place I’ve been.”

--Becky Straw

Posted on Friday, November 21, 2008

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