Kmart's CFO Steps up to Accounting Questions

Bankrupt retailer Kmart explained the impact of accounting irregularities in a Form 10-Q filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this week. Chief Financial Officer Al Koch said several employees involved in questionable accounting practices are no longer with the company.

Speaking to the concerns about vendor allowances recently raised in anonymous letters from in-house accountants, Mr. Koch said, "It was not hugely widespread, but neither was it one or two people."

The Kmart whistleblowers who wrote the letters said they were being asked to record transactions in obvious violation of generally accepted accounting principles. They also said "resident auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers are hesitant to pursue these issues or even question obvious changes in revenue and expense patterns."

In response to the letters, the company admitted it had erroneously accounted for certain vendor transactions as up-front consideration, instead of deferring appropriate amounts and recognizing them over the life of the contract. It also said it decided to change its accounting method. Starting with fourth quarter 2001, Kmart's policy is to recognize a cost recovery from vendors only when a formal agreement has been obtained and the underlying activity has been performed.

According to this week's Form 10-Q, early recognition of vendor allowances resulted in understatement of the company's fiscal year 2000 net loss by approximately $26 million and overstatement of its fiscal year 2001 net loss by approximately $78 million, both net of taxes. The 10-Q also said the company has been looking at historical patterns of markdowns and markdown reserves and their relation to earnings.

Kmart is under investigation by the SEC and the Justice Department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is handling the investigation for the U.S. Attorney, said its investigation could result in criminal charges. In the months before Kmart's bankruptcy filing, top executives took home approximately $29 million in retention loans and severance packages. A spokesperson for PwC said the firm is cooperating with the investigations.

-Rosemary Schlank