Last summer, media giant AOL Time Warner certified its financial statements but warned that there could be restatements. It didn’t take long for those words to come true. In October, the company restated $190 million in revenue, mostly for advertising deals before and after its merger in 2001 with Time Warner. Late last month, the company revealed that the Securities and Exchange Commission wasn’t happy with more advertising-related revenue and the company could be forced to restate another $400 million. Both the SEC and the Justice Department are conducting investigations into the matter.
According to AOL, the SEC alleges that AOL improperly accounted for two advertising contracts, totaling $400 million, between AOL and Bertelsmann AG, a German media conglomerate. AOL and Bertlesmann were joint owners of AOL Europe. In 2001, AOL offered to buy Bertlesmann’s share for either cash or stock. Bertlesmann wanted cash and the two companies finally struck a deal when AOL agreed to pay cash in exchange for Bertlesmann buying ads that ran on AOL.
The SEC believes that at least some portion of the money for the ads should have reduced the purchase price. AOL stands by its treatment of the transactions, saying that it has "provided the SEC a written explanation of the basis for these transactions and the reasons why.”
April hasn’t been a good month for AOL. On the 14th, two major shareholders filed suit against the company, current and former company executives, consultants who helped with the Time Warner merger, and auditor Ernst & Young. The University of California and Amalgamated Bank's LongView Collective Investment Fund claim that the defendants inflated stock prices through "tricks, contrivances, and bogus transactions.” The suit alleges that executives made off with $1 billion from insider trading deals.