A former prominent, international law firm has been accused of doctoring its books over a period of years in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy, culminating in a phony $150 million private bond offering.

In an extraordinary recounting of the alleged misdeeds, the SEC described how financial lies became culturally ingrained at the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf, to the point where some line items were labeled “Accounting Tricks” in company e-mails.

The firm lied about its profitability in financial disclosures starting shortly after the global financial collapse in 2008, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The firm went out of business after the fraudulent bond offering, the SEC said.

The SEC filed administrative charges against five former executives and financial professionals at the firm, three of whom were also charged criminally today by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York City.

“Fearful that declining revenue might cause its bank lenders to cut off access to the firm’s credit lines, Dewey & LeBoeuf’s leading financial professionals combed through its financial statements line by line and devised ways to artificially inflate income and distort financial performance,” the SEC said in a prepared statement. “Dewey & LeBoeuf then resorted to the bond markets to raise significant amounts of cash through a private offering that seized on the phony financial numbers.”

The SEC filed civil charges in federal court against five former firm officials: Chairman Steven Davis, Executive Director Stephen DiCarmine, Chief Financial Officer Joel Sanders, Finance Director Frank Canellas and controller Tom Mullikin.

Davis, DiCarmine and Sanders were charged by the district attorney’s office.

SEC documents state that the accounting tricks began in 2008 to deal with the recession and the costs of a recent merger by the firm. By the following year, the SEC alleges, the fraud deepened to the point where firm officials were openly discussing it in correspondences to one another.

“The culture of accounting fraud was so prevalent at the firm that Canellas sent Sanders an e-mail with a schedule containing a list of suggested cost savings to the budget. Among them was a $7.5 million line item reduction entitled ‘Accounting Tricks,’” the SEC documents state.

In another e-mail, according to the SEC, Sanders wrote, “I don’t want to cook the books anymore. We need to stop doing that.”

But the deceit continued, the SEC stated, with Sanders boasting in an e-mail about h ow the firm was able to adjust the books to meet its obligations to lenders at the end of 2008.

“We came up with a big one: Reclass the disbursements,” Sanders wrote, according to the SEC.

“You always do in the last hours. That’s why we get the extra 10 or 20% bonus,” DiCarmine wrote back, according to the SEC documents.

The firm continued to use illegal accounting “well after” the close of the bond offering in April 2010, according to the SEC, and issues quarterly certifications tied to the bonds that were all fraudulent.

“Investors were led to believe they were purchasing bonds issued by a prestigious law firm that had weathered the financial crisis and was poised for growth,” Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a prepared statement.  “Dewey & LeBoeuf’s senior-most finance personnel used a grab bag of accounting gimmicks to create that illusion, and top executives green-lighted the decision to sell $150 million in bonds to investors as a desperate grasp for cash on the basis of blatantly falsified financial results.”