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BT: The Wells Fargo of Phone Companies Mired In Accounting Scam in Italy

Phillip Dampier January 24, 2017 British Telecom, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

European investors are reeling on news of a massing accounting scam in Italy involving British phone giant BT Group and £500 million in loans designed to cover up phony accounts and major business losses.

BT admitted Tuesday that Italian executives have been engaged in widespread fraud creating fake accounts, borrowing money to cover expected earnings from those accounts and “forgetting” to record the cover-up loans on BT’s books.

Echoing Wells Fargo’s phony accounts scheme in the United States, pressure to achieve sales targets likely created the conditions under which BT’s Italian unit decided years ago to engage in a little accounting fraud. That fraud continued for years until finally going public, wiping nearly £8 billion in value from BT, mostly as a result of its plummeting stock price.

BT has been a part of Italy’s telecom marketplace since the 1990s, but growing competition and changing needs threatened to hurt both BT’s earnings and top executives’ bonus packages, which are based on those earnings.

The unwelcome news of accounting fraud reached the company this past summer when it was approached by a whistleblower. By October, BT publicly downplayed the misadventure as “inappropriate management behavior” that would cost the company £145 million. It took an independent investigation by accounting firm KPMG to reveal the breadth of the fraud.

“The extent and complexity of inappropriate behavior in the Italian business were far greater than previously identified,” KPMG said in its report, noting “improper accounting practices and a complex set of improper sales, purchase, factoring and leasing transactions” had taken place for years before anyone caught on.

Tucked away in a broader restatement by the company about its accounting problems was an admission that £225 million of the £400 million slashed from the company’s EBITDA forecast for the coming fiscal year was the result of a broadly declining business selling telecom products and services to large European corporations.

Intense competition has cut prices, leaving lumbering giants like BT Group unable to quickly respond to protect market share. It turned out that cooking the books was much simpler, and some executives might not have minded much, considering their outsized bonus packages.

Chief executive Gavin Patterson earned £5.3 million last year including an annual bonus of just over £1 million and share awards worth £3 million. Finance director Tony Chanmugam, retiring in July, has already been paid £2.8 million, including a £587,000 bonus. Company officials are now considering whether to claw back some of those earnings as a result of the mismanagement.

The Guardian reports BT’s European head, Corrado Sciolla, reportedly resigned on Tuesday, but the company would not comment on this.

The company’s response to the scandal is likely to prove disappointing to investors who saw BT Group’s share price plummet 21% in one day. A spokesperson said it “needs to reflect” on why the improper behavior was not spotted by BT Italy’s management, the wider group, or by its auditors.

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