By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP [PWC.UL] pinned blame for MF Global Holdings Ltd’s collapse squarely on the commodity brokerage and its former chief executive officer, Jon Corzine, as a trial over the auditor’s own responsibility got under way on Tuesday.
Jurors in Manhattan federal court are considering whether PwC should pay roughly $3 billion for its alleged negligence in causing MF Global’s October 2011 bankruptcy.
MF Global’s bankruptcy plan administrator blamed the collapse on PwC’s “egregious” accounting advice on Corzine’s risky $6.3 billion European sovereign debt wager, and on so-called deferred tax assets.
But PwC said the administrator is trying to pass blame for decisions by Corzine, the former New Jersey governor and senator and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> co-chairman, and the brokerage’s own accountants.
“MF Global was a sophisticated financial company,” and “Mr. Corzine was the mastermind and the driver” behind the European debt strategy, James Cusick, a lawyer representing PwC, told a standing-room-only courtroom in his opening statement.
“Pricewaterhouse did not commit negligence,” and “is not at all to blame, not one bit, for the bankruptcy,” he added.
Daniel Fetterman, a lawyer representing the administrator, told jurors that PwC’s failures led to a “crisis of confidence” for investors and counterparties, who fled MF Global upon learning its true financial condition.
“PwC had a job, one job,” Fetterman said. “It was a job to properly audit MF Global’s financial statements. PwC botched its job. It failed.”
MF Global plunged into Chapter 11 in less than a week, battered by news about the European debt, an unexpected large quarterly loss, credit rating downgrades and margin calls.
A resulting panic caused an estimated $1.6 billion shortfall in customer funds that were supposed to remain segregated. That money was later recovered.
The expected five-week trial is the last major piece of litigation to recover money for MF Global creditors.
PwC in April 2015 reached a separate $65 million settlement with MF Global investors, but denied wrongdoing.
Corzine has not been accused of intentional misconduct, but in January reached a $5 million civil settlement with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He is expected to testify later this week.
Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the administrator’s first witness, testified that PwC made an “incorrect certification” of MF Global’s financials by treating the European debt and tax matters improperly.
“Did PwC do their job?” Steven Thomas, a lawyer for the administrator, asked him.
“No, I don’t believe so,” Turner answered.
The case is MF Global Holdings Ltd as Plan Administrator v PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-02197.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)