Dealing in the field of corporate governance for a few decades now, I’ve read more than my share of self-serving corporate documents. Sometimes you’d think these things were written at a service station in between fill-ups. But the report of the internal committee reviewing RIM’s stock options irregularities is in a category by itself —so full of holes it’s hard to keep a grasp on it long enough to read it.
Among key questions that remain unanswered:
Exactly how much did top management and directors receive in options that were improperly accounted for or issued through backdating?
How, when and by what authority were these options approved?
What precisely was the options granting approval process for RIM’s co-CEOs and how and by whom were the dates for those options set?
Who set the option dates for RIM’s independent directors who also received backdated benefits, according to the report?
If improper gain was not the motive, what caused this quarter-billion dollar fiasco? Was it just good luck with bad advice?
Since it was determined that top management, including the co-CEOs and CFO, backdated options for certain personnel, and somebody apparently backdated options for the so-called C-group, why did it take seven months for this to be revealed? Why didn’t the co-CEOs just admit what they had done so that the information would be in the hands of investors earlier rather than later? Mr. Balsillie says these blunders occurred “on (his) watch.” He says he takes responsibility. Wouldn’t earlier disclosure have been more consistent with that spirit? That would have been leadership, not just spin.
It might be worthwhile to consider how this internal investigation came about. It was prompted by “the heightened public awareness and concern regarding stock option granting practices by publicly-traded companies.” Taking such action in the face of almost certain regulatory investigation is not exactly an act of altruism.
The list of accommodating oversights and failed questions goes on and on.
The report tries to explain away the backdating by saying an “informal” approach was taken to the granting of stock options. The use of other people’s money and the term “informal” should never occur in the same room.
Management, the company would have us believe, did not fully appreciate the accounting implications of their actions. Apple tried that line for Steve Jobs in its internal review and apparently got away with it. To see if it will work at RIM, we first need to do a check. Do we have the right Mr. Balsillie about whom it is claimed did not possess an understanding of the accounting implications of his actions? This is not Mr. Balsillie the medieval studies major at Yale or Mr. Balsillie the shoe salesman at Gap. This is Jim Balsillie who has two business degrees, including an MBA from Harvard. He is also a chartered accountant who, the company’s website boasts, has received the highest designation from the Institute of Chartered Accountants. No, I don’t think the Steve Jobs defense will work here.
What about RIM’s CFO, Dennis Kavelman? He was also involved in options backdating and received certain options whose dates had been favorably adjusted. The report does not disclose who specifically approved those dates. Are we to believe he, too, was unaware of the accounting implications? Mr. Kavelman is also a chartered accountant who has worked in that profession. The credentials of these accounting trained executives seemed to elude the internal investigation team. I guess it was too difficult to connect the dots where accountants actually might be expected to know something about accounting rules.
If you accept the report’s conclusion that there was no intentional wrongdoing and only honest mistakes were made, you would also have to believe that the two co-CEOs and the CFO had no idea of the significance of the Form 52 documents they were regularly required to sign under U.S. securities laws attesting to the accuracy of company financial statements. The certification by CEOs and CFOs was a direct result of the Enron-era scandals in which too many chief executives thought they could invoke the I-had-no idea-that-was-wrong defense made popular by Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Bernie Ebbers, Martha Stewart and a long line of similar actors. The fact that Messrs. Balsillie, Lazaridis and Kavelman were affixing their signatures to these important securities forms during the period in which they had all participated in the alteration of option dates boggles the mind.
Finally, there is some indication from previous company statements that certain records had to be recovered and “forensic imaging” was employed. In other cases, the report claims the necessary documents do not exist. Were records destroyed or deleted? The report itself offers no clarification and it should. Was there a failure on the part of the audit committee or top management to insist upon a proper policy of document retention? The uncovering of efforts to destroy records during the course of an investigation is something that always sends up red flags to regulators and justice investigators in the United States. We will see what happens here.
We’ll have more to say about the role of RIM’s board, and the staggering failures in oversight and control that led to this costly embarrassment for the company and its investors.