By Sarah N. Lynch and Anna Yukhananov
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese regulators will hand over some audit documents of U.S.-listed Chinese companies to U.S. securities regulators, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on Thursday, a move that may thaw a dispute over multiple accounting scandals.
Washington wants greater oversight after alleged misconduct at U.S.-listed firms based in China led to billions in losses, but investigations into possible fraud have been stymied as auditors have refused to turn over papers for fear of violating Chinese secrecy laws.
A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) official also testified in court on Thursday that documents relating to one company may arrive soon, according to a person in the court room.
But underscoring doubts over China's willingness to provide the documents, the official added that the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) has had a history of not following through on requests for assistance.
The SEC has been struggling for years to obtain audit work in China and many of the companies in question have seen their auditors resign. In some cases, the SEC and U.S. exchanges have delisted or deregistered the companies with accounting irregularities.
Lew's remarks came as high-level talks between the U.S. and China came to a close on Thursday.
"China's securities regulator announced that it will begin providing certain requested audit work papers to our market regulators, an important step towards resolving a long-standing impasse on enforcement cooperation related to companies that are listed in the United States," he told a news conference.
A spokesman for the CSRC also said this week that China was ready to provide the documents.[ID:nL4N0FG0QX]
LONGTOP SHIPPING TAB
The remarks by the SEC official were made in an administrative trial in which the SEC is trying to persuade a judge to sanction the Chinese affiliates of Deloitte, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, BDO and Ernst & Young for refusing to provide audit work papers.
Alberto Arevalo, an official in the SEC's international affairs office, said China recently asked the SEC to pay a shipping tab so it could send about 20 boxes of audit documents for Longtop Financial Technologies, according to the person in the court room.
The records could arrive as soon as Monday, Arevalo was quoted as saying. But Arevalo added he does not believe getting records through the CSRC is a viable option for the SEC.
Of the 23 various requests for assistance to China over the years, China did not once offer any meaningful help, he told the judge. The SEC also throughout the trial Thursday displayed e-mails dating back more than a year in which Chinese officials promised to share documents, and then never followed through.
It was not immediately clear how this latest development could affect the SEC's pending case against the five large accounting firms.
The SEC is also trying to convince a judge in a federal court to force Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CPA, LTC, Longtop's auditor, to provide the records. If the Chinese come through as promised, this could potentially help resolve the separate case against Deloitte.
If the SEC does get some of the records, it could mark the second major diplomatic breakthrough with China concerning accounting fraud this year.
In May, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board announced it had struck a nonbinding deal with China to get access to audit work papers to assist with investigations against auditors.
But the deal was only a partial victory because it only pertains to audit documents requested in connection with investigations by the PCAOB. It does not allow for on-site routine inspections, which are separate from investigations and are done on a regular basis to ensure compliance.
PCAOB spokeswoman Colleen Brennan said Thursday the announcement by the Chinese is a positive step forward, but noted that the PCAOB wanted to strike a second agreement with the Chinese to allow for inspections as well.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Edwina Gibbs)