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Friday, August 10, 2007

Stock Option Back-Dating, Corporate Investigations, And the Remarkable Reyes Verdict

I don’t know if it’s just in Silicon Valley that the Greg Reyes case has received broad coverage. Wherever you are, it’s worth taking note because this is quite a remarkable verdict. Mr. Reyes, the former CEO of Brocade, was convicted of 10 charges connected to stock option backdating and now faces up to 20 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. All this despite the fact that:

  • Mr. Reyes did not personally profit from his actions, since it was only other people’s options that he was back-dating;

  • There were no “smoking-gun” emails or any clear evidence that he knew he was breaking the law, which is key to overcoming the (plausible) defense that he was just doing what the accountants and lawyers told him he could do; and,

  • There’s no sign of damage to shareholders, given that Brocade’s stock has been unmoved by the whole thing (i.e., this is no Enron/Worldcom).
All this raises a series of questions. First, why would he (or anyone) do it if he does not benefit himself? The best explanation I have seen is Ben Horowitz’s lengthy post on the topic – to summarize, CEOs did it for the same reason that athletes take steroids – to win. Second, how did the government manage to convict him given the lack of evidence? According to Business Week, they did it by showing Mr. Reyes lied to Brocade’s corporate investigation team in 2004, suggesting he knew that what he had done was wrong (note to self: be careful what you say if an investigator comes knocking on the door). Third, what does this mean for others? Let’s just say, if I were the CEO or CFO of any of the other 200 companies implicated in this scandal, I would be pretty worried right now.

This verdict marks a big shift in the fallout from stock option back-dating. To date, the back-dating scandal has mainly distracted management and led to huge legal and accounting expenses. For example, Monster recently announced its plan to cut jobs in the wake of swelling legal expenses resulting from its investigation. But things are about to get more serious. If a jury is willing to convict Mr. Reyes based on evidence the judge thought was so weak that he almost dismissed the case, then no one is safe, Mr. Jobs.

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