Veritas Software agreed to pay $30 million to resolve civil fraud charges connected to an improper advertising deal it signed with AOL during the Internet boom's waning days.
A Securities and Exchange Commission complaint accused Veritas and AOL of Dulles of simultaneously wiring payments to each other as part of an improper, unwritten "round-trip" agreement. Both companies used the deal to inflate revenue, the complaint said. For Veritas, the transaction added 2 cents per share to its fourth-quarter and annual earnings in 2000, allowing it to beat Wall Street expectations.
Court papers filed in the District late Tuesday also accused Veritas of engaging in a series of accounting maneuvers to smooth its financial results into "museum quality" reports from 2000 through 2002. Among other things, the company used "wish lists" prepared by employees in its finance and operations unit to build cushions of expenses to make its earnings appear steadier.
Veritas, which was acquired nearly two years ago by Symantec and is a wholly owned subsidiary, neither admitted nor denied the allegations. It has restated its financials twice: once to reverse $20 million it had booked as part of the AOL deal and again to correct problems with its profit-smoothing practices.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Symantec said the company had set aside the settlement funds in reserve. The spokeswoman also pointed out that Symantec, one of the nation's largest providers of data security software, is not named in the complaint.
The case is a leftover from an era when technology companies struggled to meet the expectations of analysts and investors. AOL, which was then known as America Online and has since been absorbed by Time Warner, paid more than $500 million two years ago to settle related charges about its financial dealings.
Action on Veritas stalled for nearly two years, however, in part because the five-member SEC, which must approve recommendations from agency enforcement staff, had been stuck over how to proceed in the case.
Ultimately, SEC commissioners agreed to approve the settlement after intense deliberations. In a news release, the agency took pains to note that the $30 million penalty had been negotiated before the SEC issued a policy directive last year concerning when regulators may impose fines on companies.
That directive is designed to take into account such factors as whether shareholders benefited from fraudulent accounting in determining if companies must shell out money to pay regulatory fines. Panel members including Republican Commissioner Paul S. Atkins have expressed concern that investors should not be penalized twice.
Securities officials said they continue to probe problems at Veritas.
"The fraud was planned and implemented at the highest levels of the company," SEC associate enforcement director Scott W. Friestad said in an interview. "Former management lied to the auditors and misled investors by withholding material information about the company's financial results. As our investigation continues, we will be turning our attention to those responsible for the misconduct."