Corporate Execs Vouch for Records

Rattled investors may have gotten an infusion of confidence from the torrent of CEOs swearing to the accuracy of their companies' recent financial reports.

After waiting until the last minute, scores of major corporations rushed to comply Wednesday with a new government order requiring executives to attest in writing to the veracity of the reports.

Investors appeared unfazed as several big companies restated their finances.

The unprecedented requirement was designed to restore confidence in corporate America that was hurt by the accounting scandals at Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and many other big companies, and the downfall of the Arthur Andersen LLP accounting firm.

But William Lerach, an attorney who has sued several companies embroiled in accounting failures on behalf of shareholders, sounded a note of caution. "There's so much wiggle room in the language of the certification that we may not be getting what we think we're getting. ... I'm just afraid that we may get a false sense of confidence," he said.

The sworn statements by the chief executive officers and chief financial officers begin with "To the best of my knowledge."

In a major revision, Household International Inc., the nation's No. 2 consumer finance concern, disclosed that it earned $386 million less than previously reported over the past nine years. Investors seemed unperturbed, boosting Household's stock by 29 cents to $38.09 by the close of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company, which issues MasterCard and Visa credit cards and makes home equity and car loans, said the restatement came after its new auditors reviewed its accounting for "complex" credit-card contracts.

The market was unruffled by the restatements -- fewer than a dozen companies had made them as of Wednesday afternoon -- and staged a late-day rally that sent the Dow Jones industrials up about 260 points.

Analysts suggested many investors may have gained confidence from the certifications coming into the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Still, all the results were not in because there was a lag between companies' submitting statements to the SEC and their posting on the agency's Web site. Companies can get an automatic five-day extension.

CEOs and chief financial officers who falsely certify their company reports could be prosecuted and imprisoned. The SEC order does not spell out what would happen to companies that miss either the deadline or the five-day extension.

The leaders of approximately 700 corporations were required to file the sworn statements by 5:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday. More than 450 companies -- from Ace Hardware to Yum Brands Inc. -- had done so by then.

In response to the accounting scandals of recent months, the SEC in late June ordered 947 companies -- all with annual revenues exceeding $1.2 billion -- to submit the sworn statements. About 250 of them have deadlines later this year because they operate on a fiscal year rather than a calendar year.

No longer can CEOs blame the company's auditors or say they were unfamiliar with its finances, as former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling did in testimony to Congress earlier this year.

"We'll enforce the law," President Bush said in a speech in Milwaukee. "And Americans can be confident ... that if somebody cheats them, there's going to be a consequence.

"But by far, the vast majority of our corporate leaders are honest and decent and honorable people," Bush said.

The company that started a season of scandals, Houston-based energy-trader Enron Corp., certified Wednesday the accuracy of the financial reports it filed since entering bankruptcy proceedings in December. But the company said it could not vouch for any reports before then.

WorldCom, the major telecommunications company that became the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history on July 21, a month after disclosing it had falsely inflated profits by nearly $4 billion, is not certifying its reports. Last week, WorldCom said it had found an additional $3.3 billion in improper accounting, bringing the total to $7.1 billion.

Qwest Communications, under investigation for its accounting of $1.1 billion in revenue, also was not certifying its reports.

AOL Time Warner said in its filing to the SEC that it may have inappropriately accounted for approximately $49 million in transactions at its America Online unit, whose accounting practices are being investigated by the Justice Department.

In other restatements:

-- Capital One Financial Corp., a big credit-card issuer, said it would revise its 2001 net income to $545 million from the previously reported $597 million to reflect the cost of stock options given to its executives.

-- Interpublic Group of Cos., a major advertising business, identified $68.5 million in expenses that had not been properly accounted for. The company is restating its earnings back to 1997 to reflect the overlooked expenses, mostly incurred in its European operations.