Sunday, March 13, 2005

So what do you think happens if you're a corporate CEO in America and you get a big bonus based on the fact that your company hit an earnings target in a given year, but then it's discovered that that earnings target was never reached at all -- the bookkeepers cooked the books?

Well, these are American CEOs we're talking about, so the answer is: Nothing happens to you. You get to keep the money.

At least that's what this New York Times article says:

WILLIAM A. WISE hit the jackpot when his company hit its number. After the El Paso Corporation, the energy company in Houston, reported a profit of $93 million in 2001, Mr. Wise, its chief executive, was rewarded with a $3.4 million bonus, 768,250 stock options, $1.7 million of restricted stock and $3.7 million in "other compensation." And that was on top of his regular salary of $1.3 million.

Just two years later, however, El Paso had this to say about its performance leading up to Mr. Wise's big payday back then: Oops!

El Paso's board ousted Mr. Wise in 2003, and last year the company reported that it actually had a loss of $447 million in 2001. As it turns out, the company said, "certain personnel used aggressive, and at times, unsupportable methods to book proved" oil and gas reserves. The numbers for other years were wrong, too, it added.

Now that the record has been set straight, will Mr. Wise be giving back all that extra money he received for meeting his performance goal - hitting his number, in industry parlance - when, in fact, he didn't even come close? Not a chance. And therein lies the rub.

Hundreds of companies have restated earnings in recent years - 414 in 2004 alone, according to a recent study by the Huron Consulting Group. And in many cases, the revisions came in the wake of discoveries of questionable accounting or other possible wrongdoing that meant the numbers leading to bonuses were inaccurate. But a review of restatements by large corporations shows that companies very, very rarely - as in almost never - get that money back. The list of restatements was compiled for Sunday Business by Glass Lewis & Company, a research firm based in San Francisco....

Nice, hunh?

The article does go on to say that the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which was passed in the wake of the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other companies, is supposed to prevent this.

But so far regulators have not enforced the provision, in part because the law took effect only in July 2002.

Oh, and:

SARBANES-OXLEY also set specific triggers that force a payback: there must be an accounting restatement, the law applies only to chief executives and chief financial officers, and there must be evidence of misconduct as opposed to honest error.

Any more loopholes? Hey, let's not kid ourselves -- I'm sure there are plenty more where that came from.

It's good to be the king, isn't it?

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