Yesterday we briefly picked up the Overstock beat as Sam Antar pointed out that everyone's favorite Salt Lake City resident got a little confused about when they knew about their gain contingency existed that resulted in some contradictory disclosures.
As you may misremember, this arose from the company "recognizing income for recoveries from underbilled fulfillment partners by improperly claiming that a 'gain contingency' existed under accounting rules."
Now Sam has pointed us to some correspondence between the SEC and Overstock that indicates that PwC wasn't concerned about the issue until the Commission pointed it out and succeeding auditor Grant Thornton was unmoved until Overstock brought it up:
Please tell us if, and the extent of, your auditors’ national accounting office involvement in these issues during audit of your 2008 financial statements or the reviews of your fiscal 2009 quarterly filings.
PwC served as our auditor during the audit of our 2008 financial statements. PwC has informed us that it did not consult with its national accounting office regarding the above issues when they were identified in Q4 2008 or Q1 2009. However, in connection with this response to your letter dated November 3, 2009, PwC has consulted with its national office in regard to both the fulfillment partner under billing and partner overpayment issues and based on context of this being an area that is a highly facts and circumstances based issue that requires significant judgment where reasonable parties have different views, PwC continues to concur with our accounting and disclosure consistent with its reflection of the underlying economics and our past practices of not billing or collecting for our billing errors, rather negotiating for future price concessions that were contingent on future sales.
Grant Thornton (“GT”) reviewed our Q1 and Q2 2009 quarterly filings. To our knowledge the GT local engagement team did not review these issues with its national accounting office at the time of our Q1 and Q2 2009 quarterly filings. In early October, as we prepared our response to your October 1 letter, we asked GT for its national office’s opinion. It was our understanding at the time that GT’s national office concurred that we had used an appropriate (if not preferred) accounting treatment. Only after we received your November 3 letter, did we become aware that GT’s previous “national office” opinion had in fact been an “informal request” only, and not a “formal request.”
In the case of PwC, it's entirely possible that they just trusted that OSTK knew what they were doing and went along with it. Obviously a huge mistake. When the SEC came calling however, they moseyed through it again and rang up the accounting wonks at 300 Mad.
But the Grant Thornton engagement team, who came in after all this went down was seemingly on board with it without consulting with its own national accounting gurus even though the SEC was already on this like stink on a monkey. GT making an "informal request" of its national office on an SEC inquiry seems a little tepid.
HOWEVER! You have to remember that this is all in the words of Overstock which hasn't always been forthcoming/reliable/truthful in its filings. Then again, maybe there's something to this whole auditor "Yes men" thing.