December 10, 2021

Revenue Manipulation: You Can’t Choose Your Numbers In Advance

I blogged earlier this week about current focus areas for the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant. One of those focus areas is revenue recognition – and on the same day that Paul Munter published that year-end statement, the Enforcement Division also announced that it had charged a former NYSE-listed company and three former execs (the CFO, CAO, and Controller) with violations of the antifraud, reporting, books and records, and internal accounting control provisions of the federal securities laws. The company (which is now PE-owned) agreed to a $2 million civil penalty and a permanent injunction. The individuals are facing injunctions, disgorgement with interest, civil penalties and D&O bars.

The violations stemmed from an alleged revenue manipulation scheme and misreporting of key metrics, including adjusted EBITDA. Here’s one of the opening paragraphs in the complaint (also see this Cooley blog):

The scheme entailed entering a series of revenue adjustments to make it appear that ARA had beat, met, or come close to meeting various predetermined financial metrics, when in fact its financial performance was materially worse. Wilcox, Boucher, and Smith intentionally, recklessly, and negligently engaged in acts, practices, and courses of conduct related to those revenue adjustments that caused ARA to overstate its revenue, net income, and other financial metrics throughout this period.

Basically, according to the SEC, the defendants determined what revenue they wanted the company to have for a month or a quarter. Then, they had staff members make topside adjustments to revenue at various corporate clinic locations, until they met the predetermined number. This was at odds with the fact that the company’s internal controls called for any adjustments to be made based on actual patient payment details. The defendants allegedly applied various manipulations to arrive at their predetermined numbers, including use of a “contractual adjustments spreadsheet” as a “cookie jar” to find topside revenue when they needed it.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds because revenue recognition is complicated and I’m not an accountant, but it seems pretty obvious that it’s a no-no to decide what you want your revenue to be and then make adjustments to arrive at that figure. As I blogged just a few months ago in regards to an EPS enforcement action, the SEC really does frown upon earnings management, and it’s pretty likely that they’ll spot it.

In other news, the SEC also announced a $5 million whistleblower award this week, so there continues to be a pretty big incentive for folks who pick up on fraud to go to the Commission…

Liz Dunshee