NEW YORK — Hewlett-Packard Co. said Tuesday that it’s the victim of a $5-billion-plus fraud, claiming a British company it bought last year lied about its finances.
HP CEO Meg Whitman said executives at Autonomy Corp. “willfully” boosted the company’s figures through various accounting tricks, which convinced HP to pay $9.7 billion for the company in October 2011.
The revelation is another blow for HP, which is struggling to reinvent itself as PC and printer sales shrink. The company’s stock hit a 10-year low in morning trading.
Among other things, Autonomy makes search engines that help companies find vital information stored across computer networks. Acquiring it was part of an attempt by HP to strengthen its portfolio of high-value products and services for corporations and government agencies.
The deal was approved by Mrs. Whitman’s predecessor, Leo Apotheker, but closed three weeks into her tenure as chief executive. Mrs. Whitman was a member of HP’s board of directors when Mr. Apotheker initiated the Autonomy purchase.
Among the tricks used at Autonomy, Mrs. Whitman said: The company had been booking the sale of computers as software revenue claiming the cost of making the machines as a marketing expense. Revenue from long-term contracts was booked up front, instead of over time.
As a result, Autonomy appeared to be more profitable than it was, and seemed to be growing its core software business faster than was actually the case. The moves were apparently designed to groom the company for an acquisition, Mrs. Whitman said.
Once HP bought the company, Autonomy’s reported results quickly declined. Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch continued to run the company as part of HP, but Mrs. Whitman forced him out on May 23 because it was not living up to expectations.
“Little did I know that there was more than met the eye,” Mrs. Whitman said.
The case has been referred to America’s Securities and Exchange Commission and Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, she said. The company will also try to recoup some of the cash it paid for Autonomy through lawsuits.
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