Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Can Overstock.com Get the SEC Off Its Back?


Utah Senator Bob Bennett with his favorite constituent

Going Concern today has a post describing the winners and losers in Overstock.com's admission last week that its financial statements going back to 2008 were as phony as a six-dollar bill--thereby vindicating whistleblower and blogger Sam Antar.

Sam and other Overstock critics and media people, including myself, had been viciously attacked by its nutty CEO Patrick Byrne and his toady Judd Bagley--a possible pederast employed by Byrne to stalk wives and kiddies as well as the people actually criticizing the company. And that brings me to the part of GC's post today which I found the most interesting.

Under the category of "jury is out," the respected accounting blog says as follows:

SEC: Everyone know that the Commission doesn’t have the best track record of late. They have managed to be the laughingstock of the entire bureaucracy and despite a lot of huffing and puffing about new divisions and putting together a dream team of enforcement and financial experts, we haven’t seen much for results. Overstock may be a chance to show everyone that they’re done taking shit and that they are going to start smacking companies around.
Indeed, and the question is whether the SEC will let itself be bulldozed, again, by this well-heeled and determined bunch of crooks.

Byrne took the humiliating step of announcing restatement of its financials--and promising to fix its accounting--in the hope of heading off serious penalties from the SEC, which is investigating Overstock's accounting and, ahem, undisclosed "other issues." The company, I'm sure, would love to get the SEC to simply shrug and say "no problem" as it did two years ago, in concluding a probe of the same issues.

I'm sure that Byrne is intensely employing his trust fund (he is the son of billionaire GEICO ex-CEO John J. Byrne) in pursuit of that goal. He and his clan are the largest campaign contributors in Utah, and he has a particularly close relationship with the ultra-right Utah Sen. Robert Bennett. He has a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington to do his bidding.

Bennett can't swing quite as much weight as he did when Republicans controlled the administration, but a senator is a senator.

I'm sure that Byrne, Bennett and his Washington suits will claim that it was all unintentional--that he didn't mean to create a cookie jar reserve. It was all an accident! Just the way Bagley is claiming on message boards now that it was all an accident, he didn't mean to stalk wives and kids as part of his work for Byrne. He just accidentally stole someone's photo, accidentally made up a phony identity and accidentally engaged in pretexting on Facebook by mistake. Someone really has to instruct the kiddie stalker that sometimes silence is golden.

Will these excuses work? I imagine they're hoping for either a total exoneration or the kind of easy treatment that was meted out to crooks in the Cox years, such as when Navistar got a wrist slap under similar circumstances--though its auditor Deloitte was targeted as well.

The problem, of course, is that the evidence of intent to commit fraud is overwhelming.

Byrne went on a widely publicized accountant-firing spree when confronted with the need to restate his financials, and then lied publicly about his dealings with his former auditors, Grant Thornton--to the point of being publicly contradicted by GT.

Another problem is that, as Sam has documented over the years on his blog, these were not minor accounting goofs. Overstock committed blatant GAAP and securities law violations, and they were timed in such a way as to boost Overstock share prices. (Such as by, for instance, claiming a fourth quarter 2008 profit that was actually a loss.)

Byrne, his top execs, and members of the Overstock audit committee were made aware of everything they were doing wrong, in real time. Sam's correspondence with Overstock, and the company's retaliation and smear campaign was carefully documented by Sam over the years, and made public on his blog.

For example, here is the first paragraph of Sam's blog on the fourth quarter book-cooking:
Last Friday, Overstock.com (NASDAQ: OSTK) reported a fourth quarter 2008 net profit of $1 million dollars. CEO Patrick Byrne proudly told investors, "After a tough three years, returning to GAAP profitability is a relief." However, Overstock.com's "returning to GAAP profitability" was simply accomplished by the company violating GAAP through its failure to restate prior period financial reports effected by a certain accounting error. Had Overstock.com properly followed acounting rules, it would have reported an $800,000 loss instead of a $1 million profit.
It's hard to find a more simple example of a company seeking to deceive investors in so blatant a manner. Accounting bloggerStacie Kitts observes: "Here is a lesson on making yourself an easy target, lie to the SEC and then file a lawsuit where your internal company documents will expose the lie. DUH"

Overstock's response--the vicious personal attacks on Sam--were proof of intent to commit fraud. As I pointed out in an April 2009 blog post for Portfolio.com, Byrne's minion Bagley (right) engaged in an all-out whispering campaign on his Deep Capture website against Sam, to the point of contacting his estranged wife (who rebuffed him) and attempting to dig up dirt on his divorce.

Bagley is ostensibly focusing on the "crime of naked short selling," but his assault on Sam belies that, proving that his focus is on critics of his boss. Sam has no interest in naked shorting, only in exposing crooks like Byrne.

Byrne himself makes no bones about his ownership of Deep Capture. Indeed, note this blog post today. Accounting blogger Stacie Kitts had said Byrne was "a purported owner of a website called Deepcapture.com.” Byrne's response (accompanying a link to an attack on Sam): "there's nothing purported about it."

This is part of a pattern of issuer retaliation going back years. If the SEC wants to make an example of Overstock on that issue, it can pursue a case under Sarbanes-Oxley, which requires companies to disclose waivers to their ethics rules.

Another factor the SEC can't ignore is the pattern of false statements made by Byrne and his minions on this and other issues, but particularly concerning his accounting. Only just the other day, Overstock president Jonathan Johnson gave an absurdly misleading account of the departure of a key financial executive to the Salt Lake Tribune. Byrne also also ignored Regulation Fair Disclosure on numerous occasions, using limited readership message boards to leak out corporate news. But that's like spitting on the sidewalk compared to everything else he's done.

And then, of course, there are the issues--such as the sales tax avoidance scheme and absence of internal controls--highlighted in a recent article in the Big Money. Can Bennett convince the SEC to ignore that?

The SEC can, and should, require that Byrne and the Overstock officials responsible for this mess step down and never become public officers of another company. While so doing, they may want to look at the executive compensation handed out. While the "humble servant" was too rich to draw pay--this was just a hobby for him anyway--other Overstock execs got jaw-dropping compensation packages. The SEC has required corporate execs to cough up their ill-gotten pay under similar circumstances.

Securities lawyer Howard Sirota observes in his blog:
Worse yet, the SEC has subpoenaed the Rocker litigants [the supposed source of the Big Money article] for the documents produced in discovery in Overstock.com’s lawsuit against Rocker et al. No confidentiality order in the prior civil case can immunize these documents from production to the SEC; by definition they were produced in discovery to the adverse party and so are not privileged. This expanded SEC inquiry coincided with Overstock.com’s firing of Grant Thornton in an acrimonious dispute, the engagement of KPMG, and the third restatement in three years as Overstock.com was forced to restate 2008-2009.

The expanded SEC inquiry is highly likely to bear fruit since the very first leaked documents immediately led to the ex-CFO resigning and Overstock.com filing that its prior financials cannot be relied upon. The SEC is highly likely to bring an enforcement proceeding against Overstock.com and certain officers regarding false financial statements and false Sarbanes-Oxley certifications.

In a filing just yesterday, Overstock had the gall to announce huge salary increases and bonus payments for the top officers of the company. Compare with the numbers announced in the 2009 proxy, and you can see that Johnson's base pay went from $250,000 to $350,000, and he got a $225,000 bonus for the terrific job he did helping Byrne run this company into the ground.

CFO Steve Chestnut, who aided Byrne in showing how you can turn dry financial statements into material for standup comics, saw his base pay climb from 200K to $300,000--yup, a 50% salary increase for this dude--plus a 180K bonus. All also got the usual restricted stock grants, including the humble servant.

If that's not a wad of spittle in the face of the SEC, I don't know what is. What it indicates is that if the feds don't take action, a company that openly violates the securities laws--and compensates its execs handsomely for doing so--will get away scot free.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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