Friday, February 05, 2010

Restatements Highlight's Lies to Salt Lake Tribune's stunning admission yesterday that its recent financial statements were phony --vindicating years of hammering by whistleblower Sam Antar-- highlights an issue that I think could loom large in the SEC's probe of this creepy little company.

It all has to do with a fish story that president Jonathan Johnson gave to the Salt Lake Tribune, which appeared in the paper on Tuesday. Of all the lies that have spewed forth from this corporate crime petri dish over the years, these were among the most blatant and, I think, could be damaging to him personally, and to the company.

Johnson told the Trib that David Chidester, the senior vice president for internal controls, had not departed from the company because of any material issue. Johnson piled on the hooey, saying that Chidester had left because... well, because. No particular reason. He had been there for ten years, and it was time to move on.

Yet at the same time that Johnson was giving that rubbish to the Trib--the article appeared online the evening of Monday, Feb. 1--Johnson already knew that a decision had been made to restate all the recent financials, and that the Overstock board's Audit Committee had specifically determined, three days earlier, on Jan. 29, that its financial controls had been deficient for an extended period of tiem.

In the Form 8-K filed with the SEC yesterday, Overstock disclosed that the Audit Committee said the following on Jan. 29:

The Audit Committee has instructed management to prepare a comprehensive review and analysis of the causes of the errors identified above. The Audit Committee has further instructed management to submit to the Audit Committee a comprehensive detailed plan for the remediation of the underlying cause of the errors and for the implementation of stricter policies to avoid errors or deficiencies in accounting procedures and application going forward.

. . . In connection with the restatement of the Company’s fiscal 2008 consolidated financial statements, management has reassessed the Company’s controls and procedures including internal control over financial reporting as of December 31, 2008. Management has concluded that there was a deficiency in the operating effectiveness of the Company’s controls in place related to accounting for billings to drop ship fulfillment partners which constituted a material weakness. Accordingly, management’s report on internal control over financial reporting for fiscal 2008 can no longer be relied upon. A material weakness is a deficiency, or a combination of deficiencies, in internal control over financial reporting, such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the Company’s annual or interim consolidated financial statements will not be prevented or detected on a timely basis.
Johnson surely knew all of this--it had happened on Friday, Jan. 29--at the time that he fed the following ca-ca to the Trib three days later concerning the exit of the exec who was CFO through the end of 2008, and afterwards head of internal financial controls:

"David had been with us over 10 years. It felt like for both David and the company it was time to move to something new.

"I don't know who said what first, but it was clearly a mutual agreement. We've grown a lot in 10 years. We are a big organization and thought it was time for both parties to move on."

Johnson was right in one sense. No, Chidester hadn't left because of a recent Big Money article describing a sales tax avoidance scheme and FUBAR internal controls. He left because of something considerably more important. But Johnson--who, remember, wasn't obliged to say a thing to the Trib--decided to mislead and lie by withholding a material fact, which was that Chidester was in hot water with the board of directors. He wasn't walking away from a 300K job because he felt like going out into the job market in a recession.

Johnson's motivation in not lying would not be something as old-fashioned as "telling the truth," but a more primal urge called "self preservation." Rule 10b-5 of the securities laws forbids corporate officers not just from lying, but make it verboten "to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading."

Johnson once famously said about Sam Antar that he "can’t read his blog because it’s so full of lies." He clearly meant to say "full of truth."

I'll be interested to see if the Trib ever gets around to reporting Overstock's disclosures yesterday. And if it does, will it describe its own role in Overstock's scheme to mislead the media, the public, and its shareholders.

Most newspapers would be upset about being lied to this way, let alone to be used by a company to commit securities fraud. But remember that this is Utah, and evidently the rules of journalism don't apply there. Remember that there is another statewide paper, the Deseret News, and it hasn't breathed a word about any of the travails of this open sore in its neighborhood.

Another thing I'll be interested to see is if either Salt Lake City newspaper adjusts its heretofore uncritical view of Overstock and its wacky CEO, Patrick Byrne, in light of recent events. Byrne has so far been out of pocket, but I'm sure he'll deploy his possible-pederast fetchit boy, Judd Bagley, on a diversion mission fairly soon. Plenty of kids out there for these two douchebags to stalk.

UPDATE: The Going Concern accounting blog has this to say about the SEC finally taking action against these bums:
So while this appears to wrap up the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance investigation, one little problem that still remains is that the SEC’s Enforcement Division has not wrapped up its probe of the company. Yeah; so there’s that. Considering the the track record of the SEC, we’d typically give a company a 50/50 shot of coming out of a probe by the Enforcement Division unscathed but in the case of Overstock, we’ll be going with Schape’s {SEC chairperson Mary Schapiro's] crew.
© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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