NEW YORK — AOL Time Warner Inc. said Wednesday that the Justice Department is looking into its accounting practices, raising the possibility of a criminal case against the world’s largest media company.
AOL Time Warner did not detail the Justice Department probe and agency officials declined comment. Securities regulators are already investigating the company’s bookkeeping.
The inquiry comes amid a backdrop of deepening mistrust of corporate accounting as scandal after scandal has shaken investors’ confidence. President Bush, whose own actions as a corporate executive have been questioned, signed a bill cracking down on corporate fraud into law Tuesday but was immediately criticized for interpreting the law in a way that appeared to weaken it.
Justice Department involvement in the AOL Time Warner probe raises the possibility that the investigation could move beyond a civil securities case and into a criminal proceeding, which would be far more serious for company.
The investigation was first reported by USA Today.
“In the current environment, when anyone raises a question about accounting, it’s not surprising that the relevant government agencies will want to look into the facts,” the company said in the statement. A spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
Even if AOL Time Warner isn’t charged, the mere fact that its accounting is being scrutinized is hurting its already battered stock. AOL Time Warner’s shares fell sharply last week after it disclosed that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating how it accounted for several transactions at its America Online unit.
AOL Time Warner stock, which are down sharply this year, tumbled 9 percent Wednesday in heavy trading on the New York Stock Exchange. But investors overall seemed to shrug off news of another potential scandal, with the Dow, Nasdaq and Standard & Poor’s 500 index all posting relatively small losses.
The accounting probes come at an especially difficult time for AOL Time Warner. The company, created in a blockbuster merger announced in early 2000, ousted its No. 2 executive Robert Pittman earlier this month and badly needs to restore its reputation with investors.
Pittman, chief of America Online before the merger, announced his resignation on the same day that the Washington Post began publishing a series of articles detailing what the newspaper called “unconventional” ways of increasing revenues at AOL.
The practices included selling ads to a British entertainment company in lieu of taking a cash settlement in a legal dispute and booking sales from ads that were sold on behalf of eBay. The transactions occurred between July 2000 and March 2002.
AOL has been in trouble for aggressive accounting in the past. In May 2000, the company agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine to settle SEC charges that it improperly accounted for costs to mail computer discs to potential customers.
While the transactions in question at AOL involve just $270 million, a relatively small amount for a company that booked $38 billion in revenues last year, they have alarmed investors and analysts.
MCI owner WorldCom, Global Crossing and Enron collapsed amid corporate accounting scandals. And last week, members of the founding family of Adelphia Communications were arrested and accused of looting the company’s coffers.
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor, said it was normal for the Justice Department to join the SEC in the early stages of an investigation to determine whether the case should proceed as a criminal matter.
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