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ASIC may take action on Centro

AS PARTIES in the Centro class action finalise details of a $200 million settlement, the corporate regulator has indicated it may take further disciplinary action.

Asked whether it planned action against Centro's former auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers, a spokesman for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission said that ''any decisions would be made after careful consideration by the ASIC commissioner''.

The spokesman said the corporate regulator could not comment on future enforcement action.

''More generally, decisions on court action are based on assessing a few things and they are whether court action is in the public interest, the regulatory benefit of the action and the scale of the wrongdoing or loss involved,'' he said.

On becoming the ASIC chairman a year ago, Greg Medcraft stressed the importance of policing the ''gatekeepers'', including auditors, who act as intermediaries between investors and the financial markets.

ASIC last year won a civil penalty case in which the Federal Court found Centro's directors breached their duties by signing 2006-07 accounts that failed to disclose billions of dollars of short-term debt and failed to reveal crucial post-balance date events.


Lawyers last night were finessing the minutiae of the terms of settlement, in which PwC is expected to bear one-third of a $200 million payout to Centro investors. The case is due for a brief hearing this morning in the Federal Court.

PwC last month made limited admissions during the class action, acknowledging that its staff were negligent during the Centro audit in 2007. PwC had argued that Centro's board and executives withheld information about its position from the lead audit partner, Stephen Cougle, who signed the formal auditor's statement in the accounts.

But as the enormously expensive Federal Court trial dragged on into its third month, Justice Michelle Gordon last week issued yet another warning to parties to try to settle the case.

Shareholders must first be given adequate notice of the proposed deal before it is formally considered by a judge who, in turn, must decide if it is fair and reasonable. The notification process is likely to take several weeks.

Lawyers representing some of the 5000 aggrieved shareholders have hailed the payout - the biggest in Australia - as a significant victory for Centro shareholders.

A Maurice Blackburn partner, Martin Hyde, said the result was enormously pleasing and sent ''a strong message to corporations and their advisers that they will be held accountable to their shareholders''.

The $200 million will be split 75-25 between Maurice Blackburn and Slater & Gordon, which represented a second group of shareholders in a parallel action. But as much as 25-30 per cent will be taken by financiers to the court action, the litigation funders IMF Ltd and Comprehensive Legal Funding LLC.

Neither law firm would confirm how much would end up in shareholders' pockets.