Like a convict who has exhausted his appeals, and whose only hope for a stay of execution is an order of clemency, publicly traded community banks are faced with finally having to comply with what many consider to be the most burdensome element of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Section 404(b) of the act requires that public companies obtain an outside auditor's approval that their financial statements are accurate, but companies with a market capitalization of less than $75 million have, so far, been exempt from having to comply with the law. Earlier this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued what it insisted would be the last in a string of extensions it gave to small companies when it said that they would have to begin complying with the law by June. Executives are embracing the prospect of hiring outside auditors to review their internal controls with all the enthusiasm of a man choosing his last meal.

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