“I always think it’s important for regulators to reflect the people they represent,” she said, “so I’m really proud that this is the most diverse board in the history of the PCAOB.”
Members of the PCAOB, a nonprofit corporation created under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, are appointed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees its operations. Williams assumes the presidency with nearly 12 years of experience working at the SEC amid stints in private practice and one at the White House. She takes office with a lot on her plate. As its name suggests, the PCAOB’s mission is to oversee the accounting of all publicly traded companies and registered broker-dealers in the United States and more than 50 countries.
“We audit the auditors,” is how Williams put it, but the PCAOB’s full portfolio is broader than that. In effect, it ensures that accounting firms and brokers comply with the latest accounting standards, but it also sets these standards for the industry and enforces violations.
“We want to promote the public interest in the preparation of accurate, informative, independent audit reports,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that when investors see the audits of public companies, they can trust those audits and therefore trust the financial information they receive from the public companies in which they invest.”
One of the current challenges that Williams and the board face comes from companies based in China and Hong Kong, which trade in U.S. markets but don’t allow the PCAOB to audit their auditors. The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act of 2020 requires all companies listed on US stock exchanges to certify that they are not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. In addition, companies that do not allow the PCAOB to review their audits could be banned from selling on US exchanges. Williams says negotiations with the Chinese government are ongoing and hopes an agreement can be reached to resolve the dispute.
High-level accounting and securities work is not where Williams thought her career would lead, she admits. A Double Hoo who majored in sociology at UVA as an undergrad, she was active in the Black Law Students Association and credits Professor Anne Coughlin and a course Coughlin taught on feminist jurisprudence, for having made it more confident and more critical.
“I had more fun in law school than I think anyone is supposed to have,” she added.
Williams joined the DC office of Arnold & Porter as a litigation associate after graduation, but her desire to do more litigation work prompted her to accept a position as associate chief litigation counsel. at the SEC in 2004. She rose through the ranks, serving as counsel to the chairman and eventually becoming deputy chief of staff of the SEC in 2012.
Williams could have stayed with the SEC if she hadn’t gotten a job in the Obama administration in 2015. Williams has worked as a special assistant attorney, advising the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, and other groups within of the executive branch on financial and economic matters. One project that she said stood out was the Puerto Rico Economic Oversight, Management, and Stability Act, which created a financial oversight board to help the Puerto Rican government restructure its debt. At the end of the Obama administration, she returned to private practice as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis before returning to government and the PCAOB.
As president of the PCAOB, Williams won’t have many opportunities to enter court, and she says she misses it. “When people ask me what my favorite job was at the SEC,” she explained, “my fondest memories are of showing up in court, saying, ‘Erica Williams on behalf of the Securities and Exchange Commission.’ , and to litigate cases to try to bring people to account for harming investors.
“I’m really glad to be back in public service, working to protect investors.”