The Securities and Exchange Commission announced yesterday that it had filed civil securities fraud charges against 10 telecommunications executives involved in more than a dozen deals that allegedly resulted in Lucent Technologies Inc. improperly reporting $1.15 billion in revenue.
The charges mark the culmination of an investigation into 20 transactions that date to 2000. Of the 10 executives charged in the scandal, nine worked for Lucent, the world's largest maker of telecommunications equipment. Three of them have already reached settlements with the agency to resolve the charges. The 10th was a former executive with Winstar Communications Inc. who the SEC claimed had helped Lucent improperly book $125 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2000.
At the time the deals allegedly took place, Lucent, like much of the telecommunications industry, was sliding into a downturn after several years of explosive Internet-related growth. In the complaint filed yesterday with the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the SEC alleged that the Lucent executives falsified documents, entered secret agreements and circumvented Lucent's internal accounting controls in order to meet revenue goals.
The SEC's complaint claims that the executives were motivated by a "drive to realize revenue, meet internal sales targets and/or obtain sales bonuses."
Lucent agreed in March to pay a $25 million fine to resolve SEC claims that it failed to fully cooperate with the investigation. In a statement yesterday, the SEC said the fine was related to the company's failure to turn over documents. In addition, the SEC claims that Lucent officials made statements that misled the public about the investigation.
As part of the investigation, the SEC focused on Lucent's dealings with Winstar. In one key allegation, the SEC claims that former Winstar executive vice president David W. Ackerman agreed to improperly inflate the price of a software deal in order help Lucent's sales staff meet its revenue goals. The SEC alleges that the actual value of the software deal was just $10 million and that Lucent entered secret agreements with Winstar to make up the $125 million difference.
Those side deals included a $35 million credit toward future purchases and a $45 million credit toward future work by Lucent for Winstar. Ackerman allegedly demanded that the agreements be put in writing. However, that demand raised concerns for the Lucent executives because accounting rules would require that the total value of the sale be offset by the future commitments.
The SEC alleges that to mislead Lucent's own accountants, Lucent executive William Plunkett ordered another sales executive to draft false documents that created the impression that the "side deals" were totally separate from the $135 million software transaction.
The SEC claims that the $125 million in revenue related to the Winstar transaction accounted for 26 percent of the company's pretax income for the fourth quarter of 2000. Lucent declined to make Plunkett available, and Ackerman could not be reached at home.
Plunkett was one of three former Lucent executives who reached a settlement with the SEC to resolve the charges filed yesterday. Plunkett agreed to pay a fine of $110,000, the SEC said. Deborah Harris, a vice president of sales who reported to Plunkett, agreed to pay a fine of $100,000. And Vanessa Petrini, an assistant vice president of sales who reported to Harris, agreed to pay a fine of $60,000 and give up a $109,505 bonus related to the allegedly improperly recorded sales. All three executives were involved in the Winstar transaction, the SEC said.
Of the nine Lucent executives charged by the SEC, three still work for the company, said company spokesman William T. Price, who declined to identify them. Lucent said it would complete a review of the employees charged by the SEC now that the agency has filed its charges and completed its investigation. "We are not going to comment any further on the circumstances or the individuals named in the SEC complaint," Price said.
In other cases cited by the SEC, Lucent recorded more than $350 million in equipment sales to two distributors with a promise that the equipment could be returned if no buyers could be found. The arrangement violated accounting rules, which require that any sale be final in order to report the proceeds as revenue. Ultimately, the equipment was returned to Lucent, but only after the fourth quarter closed.
The SEC launched its investigation of Lucent in 2000, after the company brought the improper accounting to the government's attention. The company caught the problem before filing its final audited financial statements with the SEC in 2000 and therefore was not required to restate any filings with the agency.
"Since bringing this matter to the SEC's attention, we have addressed these issues with increased controls and disclosures in our organization," Lucent chief executive Patricia F. Russo said in a prepared statement. "We are closing this chapter in our history, putting it behind us and focusing on moving our business forward."