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Were Groupon’s and Overstock’s Management and Auditors Stupid or Did They Condone Improper Accounting Practices?

Back on August 24, 2011, accounting professors J. Edward Ketz and Anthony H. Catanach Jr., reported in their blog that Groupon (planned ticker symbol: GRPN) violated Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) in reporting its revenues and recommended that it restate its financial reports to correct its error. They sent a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission Whistleblower Office. Last week, Groupon restated its financial reports to comply with revenue accounting rules as called for by Ketz and Catanach. The company revised its reported 2009 revenues from $30.5 million to $14.5 million and its 2010 revenues from $713.4 million to $312.9 million – no small potatoes!

Why did Groupon’s CFO and its auditors at Ernst and Young (the third largest accounting firm in the world) miss revenue accounting violations? Ketz and Catanach did not have access to company management or its books and records. They found GAAP violations from merely reading financial reports filed with the S.E.C. in anticipation of the company’s initial public offering. They compared the company’s revenue accounting disclosures with applicable accounting rules and found material misstatements in violation of GAAP. Were Groupon’s management and its auditors stupid? Shouldn’t they know revenue accounting rules? In a blog post this evening, noted forensic accountant and author Tracy Coenen suggests that Groupon used higher and improper revenue numbers to mask troubling trends in its business model.

Over the last several years, my blog exposed a pattern of accounting shenanigans which helped Overstock.com (NASDAQ: OSTK) (also known as O.co) materially overstate its reported earnings. From Q2 2007 to Q2 2008, the company used improper EBITDA calculations to materially inflate its financial performance in violation of S.E.C. Regulation G. For example, in Q2 2008 Overstock.com reported a positive $1.117 million EBITDA using its improper calculation instead of a negative $0.430 million EBITDA had it complied with Regulation G. From Q4 2008 to Q3 2009, Overstock.com violated Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and materially inflated its reported earnings. For example, in Q4 2008, Overstock.com improperly reported a $1.014 million net profit instead of a $0.705 million net loss if it has followed GAAP.

In both cases, I provided the company with detailed information about its accounting irregularities, but its CEO Patrick Byrne chose to vilify me and continue violating accounting rules. In both cases, my analysis of Overstock.com's accounting violations was ultimately proven correct by its later revisions of financial reports. The S.E.C. is currently investigating Overstock.com for securities law violations.

Why was I was able to find accounting irregularities at Overstock.com missed by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton (the second and sixth largest accounting firms in the world)?  PricewaterhouseCoopers was Overstock.com's auditors from 1999 to 2008 and Grant Thornton was its auditors from Q1 to Q3 2009. Just like Professors Ketz and Catanach, I found accounting violations by merely reading Overstock.com's financial reports and comparing its financial disclosures to applicable accounting rules. I am not an accounting professor and I lost my CPA license because I am a convicted felon. Is a convicted felon and former CPA smarter than the company and two of the six largest public accounting firms?

Back in my Crazy Eddie days, in many cases I had to deceive my auditors at KPMG (then known as Peat Marwick Main) to manipulate earnings and defraud investors. In October 2000, Joseph T. Wells asked the following question about Crazy Eddie's auditors in the Journal of Accountancy:

Were the auditors stupid? No, just too trusting. After all, no one wants to think the client is a crook. But it happens all too often. That’s why the profession requires auditors to be skeptical.

I personally don’t believe that the managements of both Groupon and Overstock.com tricked their auditors into using improper accounting rules to misstate their respective company's financial performance. Further, I don’t believe that the managements and auditors of Groupon and Overstock.com were so stupid that they did not understand accounting rules. I believe that the managements of both companies simply chose to avoid following applicable accounting rules and their auditors condoned those practices. Seriously, can they be so stupid? If so, their audits are nothing but window dressing.

Public accounting firms are supposed to be gatekeepers and protect the integrity of financial reporting. However, financial reports have apparently become promotional materials to help inflate stock prices, rather than provide investors with a proper picture of a company’s financial performance. In too many cases, public accounting firms have become advocates of management at the expense of investors, creditors, and other users of financial information. Some investors don’t seem to care as long as they can profit from higher stock prices caused by improper accounting practices that are condoned management and so-called independent auditors.

Our government doesn’t seem to care, too. President Barack Obama wants cut red tape and make it easier for small companies to go public without going through a rigorous review process by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Front runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination Mitt Romney wants to repeal corporate governance and accounting reforms under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act altogether. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have already succeeded in cutting funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission despite increased responsibilities under the Dodd-Frank Act.

Have you ever wondered why committing securities fraud is so easy and is going to get even easier in the future?

Written by:

Sam E. Antar

Recommended reading

TheStreet.com - Bucket List of Apologies -- SEC Edition by Gary Weiss

TheStreet.com - Obama Signals Green Light for Stock Fraud by Gary Weiss

Footnoted.com - The Footnoted Jobs Program... by Michelle Leder

Business Insider - "The Feds Are Drinking The Same Kool-Aid As Crazy Eddie's Former Auditors" by Sam E. Antar

Dag Blog -"Crazy Eddie" Fraudster Sam Antar To Return To Crime - Thanks to Darrell Issa & Anti-Regulation Republicans by William K. Wolfrum

Disclosure

I am a convicted felon and a former CPA. As the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie, I helped my cousin Eddie Antar and other members of his family mastermind one of the largest securities frauds uncovered during the 1980's. I committed my crimes in cold-blood for fun and profit, and simply because I could.

If it weren't for the heroic efforts of the FBI, SEC, Postal Inspector's Office, US Attorney's Office, and class action plaintiff's lawyers who investigated, prosecuted, and sued me, I would still be the criminal CFO of Crazy Eddie today.

There is a saying, "It takes one to know one." Today, I work very closely with the FBI, IRS, SEC, Justice Department, and other federal and state law enforcement agencies in training them to identify and catch white-collar criminals. Often, I refer cases to them as an independent whistleblower. In addition, I teach about white-collar crime for government entities, professional organizations, businesses, and colleges and universities.

I do not seek or want forgiveness for my vicious crimes from my victims. I plan on frying in hell with other white-collar criminals for a very long time. My past sins are unforgivable.

I do not have any position in Groupon or Overstock.com securities.

Comments

michael webster said…
Sam; I was just talking with a person at Deloitte - who were the auditors for Garth Drabinksy's fraud. He just recently went to jail, after fighting it for over 12 years, see:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/no-new-trial-for-drabinsky-gottlieb/article2164011/

My contact said that two or three partners at Deloitte's refused to sign off on Livent's financials. They were immediately ostracized by the other partners, taken off the file, and generally left to rot.
Sam E. Antar said…
Hi Michael: A culture of indifference has infected the accounting profession. Getting similar reports about other accounting firms from staff auditors. Regards, Sam
BMcFadden said…
As the company stated, the merchants are responsible for fulfilling the obligation to deliver the goods and services, which means that Groupon in fact is not the primary obligor but is a guarantor of sorts. This conclusion is further bolstered by observing that Groupon has no inventory, cannot set product or service price, cannot change the product and does not perform part of the service, has no discretion in supplier selection, and is not involved in product or service specifications.


FYI: This issue (and corresponding accounting method) was highlighted in The May Report (a popular Chicago-based blog) shortly after the first Groupon S-1 was filed back in June.

http://www.tmronline.com/A55951/tmrarticles.nsf/39918186ac76b68a8625692400787eb1/984ed8554f148168862578aa00839abd!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,99-19

Here is the text from The May Report (from an email sent in by a reader of the blog):


Take a look at the FASB Issue No. 99-19, Reporting Revenue Gross as a Principal versus Net as an Agent:

FASB Issue. 99-19 PDF

This discusses revenue recognition and the difference between GROSS vs. NET revenues for a company like Groupon. I think that most accountants who are playing by the rules would agree that Groupon’s revenues in 2010 were actually $280 million and NOT the $713 million as reported (i.e. the slice that goes to merchants should not be counted at all vs. counted as both revenue and COGS).

I know that E&Y blessed the financials, but hey…companies have pushed the envelope with the blessing of big accounting firms before (e.g. Enron, etc.) I am not mad at Groupon, The key is to get away with as much as you can. I will sell the company less than a year and implement a new business.

BMcFadden signing off.

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