Third of four articles
Shortly after March 20, 2000, the worst day of Michael Saylor's life, one of his blue-chip Washington lawyers, Brendan Sullivan, promised him that everything was about to get worse.
This was just after MicroStrategy Inc., the company Saylor led, had been forced to issue a "restatement" of its recent financial records, effectively turning two years of profits into two years of losses; it was after the company's stock price fell from $226.75 to $86.75 a share in a single day of trading.
"This is going to be like getting on a raft at the top of the Grand Canyon," Saylor recalled Sullivan telling him. "You're going to go all the way to the bottom and you're going to hit rapids every step of the way. And you just gotta hold on."
Still, Saylor was defiant, even after MicroStrategy's shareholders lost a collective $11.1 billion in a single day. "Mother Teresa never quit during a down quarter," he told Reuters on March 20, "and what we're doing is just as important." He maintained that MicroStrategy's mistakes had been negligible. He told friends that his company had been the victim of "bean-counter sophistry" from its auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and from the "jackals" in the press.
But there was something Saylor feared -- the Securities and Exchange Commission. Its chairman, Arthur Levitt Jr., had placed a high priority on scrutinizing corporate accounting standards, especially for the fast-growing technology firms. To have an SEC investigation pending for months, or years, can kill a young firm, especially a cash guzzler such as MicroStrategy, which needed to raise money in the aftermath of its aborted $2 billion stock offering. The SEC, Saylor would say in his preferred "Star Trek" parlance, could "vaporize us."
On April 13, MicroStrategy announced that the commission had begun an investigation into its accounting practices. The same day MicroStrategy also disclosed that it had overstated revenue for the previous three years, not just two.
Nearly all SEC investigations end in a settlement. But just the idea of it ran counter to Saylor's natural impulse to fight. His attorneys warned that fighting was a bad idea if he wanted the keep control of his company; MicroStrategy's fate and that of its founder, they said, would depend largely on Saylor's ability to abide compromise and show contrition. Whether that was possible was not yet clear.
The SEC had a team of five lawyers and two accountants working on the MicroStrategy case. It was led by Gregory S. Bruch, a Stanford-trained investigator, who is described by a former colleague as an "aggressive do-gooder" determined to "teach lessons in the interests of public good."
Bruch (pronounced "Brew"), a former Eagle Scout from Independence, Mo., often expressed bemusement at the arrogance of the new-technology zillionaires of the period. During the MicroStrategy investigation, Bruch read many of Saylor's internal e-mails and was amazed at some of the things that seemed to preoccupy the entrepreneur: finding the right person, for example, to compile his speeches and ideas and write a history of the company.
Explanation Questioned After the restatement, Saylor's explanations of MicroStrategy's accounting problems began to sound increasingly dubious to many of his own executives. In the first weeks after March 20, executives recall, Saylor had relied on a simple, two-pronged excuse: "Software accounting is complicated" and "The auditors were signing off." But many people within MicroStrategy were beginning to think the company was wrong, at least on the timing issue -- the easy-to-discern notion that company officials had counted certain deals in quarters that they knew had ended when the deals were signed.
Saylor himself was on record as saying he knew the practice was wrong.
"There's a difference between 11:59 and 12:01, the last day of March," Saylor said in a Washington Post interview in June 1999. "One of them is you go to jail if the thing gets signed at 12:01 [and you record it the day before]. One of them is the stock is up $500 million and the other one is you've just torched the life and livelihood of a thousand families."
It had become apparent, largely through statements from some MicroStrategy customers in the press, that the company had made a practice of "turning the clock back" at the end of certain quarters. Or it was operating by a flawed clock. Either way, not everything could be blamed on PricewaterhouseCoopers.
While his attorneys, particularly Jonathan Klein, the company's general counsel, told Saylor to stop talking to the press, Mark Bisnow, the Washington political veteran who became Saylor's personal publicist, told Saylor that candid apologies would be his best strategy and the quickest route to rehabilitation.
Bisnow cited the example of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was then challenging George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. After McCain was tainted in the Keating Five scandal of the early 1990s, he transformed himself into what Bisnow called "the gold standard of integrity." McCain achieved this by repeatedly admitting his mistakes, Bisnow said.
"Everyone knows you're brilliant, but the one thing everyone comments on is your need for humility," Bisnow wrote in an e-mail to Saylor in April 2000. "A lot of people, especially in the high tech industry, know that accounting issues are complicated. . . . Now is the time to show that this is a time of great education for you, that you are prepared to emerge a new person from this experience."
Saylor enjoyed the McCain parallel, Bisnow said. But Bisnow became frustrated that Saylor ignored the part about admitting wrongdoing. Saylor himself said he never felt the comparison was fully "appropriate" to his own situation.
Saylor saw himself as an outsider snared by the Washington culture. "I come from a naive, sort of a lower-middle-class family," he said later. "I didn't understand the media. I didn't understand politics. If I were a Kennedy, I would get it." He told one associate that "Janet Reno would not rest" until she indicted him.
Before appearing at a shareholder meeting that June, Saylor became furious at a speech that had been prepared for him by MicroStrategy's vice president of marketing, Joe Payne. The speech had a penitent tone and included an apology to shareholders.
"I'm not saying this," Saylor said to Payne, shaking his head. "It makes it look like I did something wrong."
But Saylor read the speech verbatim, in a flat monotone like a hostage forced to speak on TV. Shares of MicroStrategy jumped $3.88 that day, closing at $42.44.
Running Out of Cash Meanwhile, his company was running out of cash. Within a few weeks of MicroStrategy's restatement, the company fell out of compliance with the conditions of a credit line it held with Bank of America. This forced Saylor to personally guarantee the terms of the company's lending, an unusual move by a chief executive, and also a sign of Bank of America's unease with MicroStrategy's financial status. The previous fall, Saylor had liquidated $42 million of his stock assets -- his only personal stock sale to that point. The sale provided a thin cushion for MicroStrategy, which needed $6 million just to meet its payroll every two weeks, according to a company source.
Saylor, despite his enormous stock holdings, was vulnerable to personal bankruptcy unless the company could raise money fast -- and ongoing SEC investigations are no selling point.
In June, MicroStrategy sold about 4 percent of its outstanding shares and accepted a $125 million investment from a group led by Promethean Asset Management LLC of Chicago. But the Promethean investment hurt MicroStrategy in the long-term because of a provision that allowed Promethean to gain more shares if the company's stock price dropped after the purchase date -- which it steadily did. In investment circles, such provisions have been called "death spirals" because a firm's stock price often falls after taking on such financing, and as the price drops, the company has to issue more stock. MicroStrategy was eventually forced to renegotiate the deal.
But in June 2000 the Promethean deal provided MicroStrategy with a temporary life jacket. Saylor, however, was increasingly scared for his job.
Bruch was convinced that MicroStrategy's top executives should be held responsible for the accounting problems that led to the restatement of results. "This was not a case of incompetence," Bruch said in an interview, referring to Saylor, MicroStrategy co-founder Sanju Bansal and Chief Financial Officer Mark Lynch. "These were not bumblers. They're smart guys. If there were errors made, you expect there to be a random distribution of errors. It wasn't." Rather, he said, there were consistent "errors" made in the company's favor.
Beltway securities lawyers tend to be an incestuous group, often moving freely between the SEC and private practice. A prime example is Harvey L. Pitt. Pitt represented Saylor before the SEC and is now its chairman. Ralph Ferrara, a securities law expert who represented the firm and had shared an office with Pitt at the SEC in the 1970s, also interviewed with the White House for the job, according to sources familiar with those discussions.
Unlike many dealings between competing legal interests, SEC and private lawyers are often cooperative. A company's legal team will conduct an investigation of the firm it is representing, then present its findings to the SEC. A lawyer's credibility with the SEC is vital, especially because the attorney could be working with the agency, or for the agency, again.
Between April and June of 2000, Bruch and Ferrara oversaw parallel investigations of the company. They scrutinized several years of MicroStrategy documents -- filings, contract drafts, memos and, most compellingly, e-mails. The most incriminating were from Lynch, who would use terms like "scorching the earth," often in response to pressure from Saylor to achieve "maximum results," said an SEC source who had viewed the e-mails.
In June, Ferrara and his partner John Tuttle met with Bruch to discuss their mutual findings. In the following weeks, the parties held a series of discussions about settling the case. Ferrara argued -- and Bruch became convinced -- that barring Saylor and Bansal from the company would probably kill it and would only hurt shareholders more. Still, Bruch was prepared for a long fight, even though it was far from certain that he could win a case against the three executives if it went to trial. PricewaterhouseCoopers' role would be a "litigation risk," he said in an interview, meaning that a jury would be likely to view the accounting firm's advice as a mitigating factor in assessing MicroStrategy's guilt.
As he negotiated with Ferrara, Bruch asked variations on the same question: "How do I get comfortable leaving these guys in here?" A recurring point of contention involved a single word: "fraud."
SEC officials believed this was a case of fraud, while Ferrara argued against including the word in the SEC's complaint. Bruch used a favorite term whenever Ferrara threatened to refuse a settlement that included a fraud charge. "If you do that, then we'll unleash the hounds," Bruch would say, meaning that the SEC would expand the scope and tone of the investigation, and that could take years.
As it turned out, Ferrara was able to avoid a charge of fraud against the company -- but not Saylor, Bansal and Lynch as individuals. This was an important point for Ferrara. If the company had been cited for fraud, it would have become even more difficult for MicroStrategy to raise money. The company also agreed to add an experienced outsider to the audit committee of its board of directors -- something it had said it would do before, but never had.
But before he agreed to anything, Bruch needed Saylor, Bansal and Lynch to answer detailed questions about how the accounting fiasco happened. They needed to explain the fine print of some of their contracts, what they meant by certain colorfully worded e-mails. "I need to be convinced that these guys "get it," Bruch told Ferrara.
Saylor, Bansal and Lynch each had his own counsel, his own concerns and his own grievances: Bansal felt unfairly targeted, given that his main charge at the company was to bring in deals, not record and account for them. Lynch said he felt squeezed between Saylor's ambitious revenue demands and PricewaterhouseCoopers' willingness to approve the company's numbers.
Saylor complained in various private forums about Lynch, saying things like "My CFO didn't do his job," or that Lynch was "too aggressive." But he was also worried that Bansal and Lynch could quit, breaking up their circle and opening up the possibility of lawsuits between them that could further damage the company.
Bruch insisted that Saylor, Bansal and Lynch had to sign on to the final settlement together. Lynch was the most conflicted, but in the end all three agreed. The contours of a deal were set that would allow Saylor to keep control of his company, but with a big qualifier: He would have to explain to the SEC that he understood his company's mistakes and how they had happened.
On the night before his appearance before the SEC in November 2000, Saylor went home early, around 8 p.m. He called his mother. He tried to soothe himself, sat down at his piano and played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
Questioned at SEC
The next day, Pitt told lawyer jokes as he and Saylor rode in a Lincoln Town Car to the SEC. Saylor kept taking deep breaths and worried about his ability to remain disciplined and contrite over several hours. In the commission's basement hearing room, Pitt sat on Saylor's left, Ferrara on his right.
Pitt, undeterred by a "No Eating" sign, spread out a smorgasbord of Diet Cokes, bottled water, fruit, sandwiches, chips and a five-pound tin of deluxe nuts, which he offered to everyone in the room.
Across from them were the seven SEC officials who had worked on his case. Bruch sat in the middle, flanked by Laura Josephs, a seasoned investigator, and Jay Balacek, a former Harlem beat cop. Josephs, sick with pneumonia, asked general questions to start, then drilled down to the fine points of contracts and internal e-mails. Her questions came in a methodical flurry, interrupted by a hacking cough.
The interview began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at 6:30 p.m. with a 45-minute break for lunch. Sources on both sides said Saylor was deferential and earnest, admitting he had not put the "financial infrastructure" in place to manage a company growing as fast as MicroStrategy. One person in the room described him that day as "almost elfin."
Saylor recapped the story of MicroStrategy, how he always wanted it to be a force for a better civilization and how he was sorry for all the pain he had caused his shareholders. Again and again he apologized, saying that as CEO, he bore responsibility for everything that happened. He asked to be allowed to learn from his mistakes.
As he finished speaking, Saylor's voice cracked and his eyes welled with tears.
Saylor Keeps Job
It could have been an act -- SEC officials were fully open to that possibility. Saylor seemed so well-prepped by his lawyers, "like a guy who needed to be trained in how to talk to people as equals," said an SEC source who was in the room. But Saylor had demonstrated the requisite contrition. He gave good answers on small points, didn't stonewall or argue. He could keep his job.
Still, the SEC's findings, issued in mid-December, provided a detailed account of how Saylor, Bansal and Lynch were complicit in manipulating MicroStrategy's financial reports. "Each knew, or was reckless in not knowing, that MicroStrategy's financial statements were materially misleading." At the end of each quarter, the SEC said, "Saylor, Bansal and Lynch discussed, within a range, the financial results they would like to report in the just-ended quarter and whether to forestall recognizing some revenue.
"To maintain maximum flexibility to achieve the desired quarterly financial results, MicroStrategy held, until after the close of the quarter, contracts that had been signed by customers but had not yet been signed by Saylor, Bansal and Lynch. Only after Saylor, Bansal and Lynch discussed the desired financial results were the unsigned contracts apportioned, between the just-ended quarter and the then-current quarter, and signed by either Bansal and Lynch and given an 'effective date.' In some instances, Bansal and Lynch signed contracts without affixing a date, allowing the company further flexibility to assign a date at a later time."
In other instances, the SEC said, Saylor, Bansal and Lynch knowingly booked revenue from deals before the contracts were signed.
Saylor, Bansal and Lynch agreed to pay fines of $350,000 to settle the SEC's charges of civil accounting fraud -- the largest fines that the SEC had ever levied in a case that did not involve insider trading.
The executives also agreed to "disgorge" a combined $10 million of what the SEC labeled "ill-gotten gains" on stock sales -- $8.3 million by Saylor, $1.6 million by Bansal and $138,000 by Lynch. Lynch, who had already resigned as chief financial officer to become vice president of business affairs, was barred from practicing accounting before the SEC for at least three years.
In agreeing to pay the fines, Saylor, Bansal and Lynch did not admit or deny wrongdoing. Saylor, Lynch and Bansal all declined comment on their SEC settlement.
On the day the settlement was announced, MicroStrategy's stock closed at $15.38.