Monday, June 19, 2006

Another Variant on Options Backdating: Hiring-Related Stock Option Grants

The recent media coverage surrounding stock option practices primarily has been focused on options backdating, and to a lesser extent on options springloading. A new wave of media attention has drawn scrutiny of another options compensation practice – the allegedly improper use of stock options grants in connection with hiring and recruiting of new personnel.

The June 19, 2006 New York Times carries a detailed article examining stock option related hiring practices at Micrel. Micrel’s volatile stock prices created a situation where new hires’ stock option strike price (set on the date of hire) could differ significantly from the strike price on options granted to others whose date of hire was only a few days before or after. With the alleged blessing of its auditor, Deloitte & Touche, Micrel set the strike price on new hires’ stock option grants at the lowest point in the 30 days from when the new hires' stock option grant was approved. According to the Times article, the practice also had the blessing of Micrel’s outside counsel, Morrison & Foerster. Five years later, Deloitte “reversed its opinion and urged Micrel to restate its financial reports.” The company restated earnings downward and subsequently sued Deloitte claiming that the cost to Micrel from the flawed option plan could reach $58.6 million.

Deloitte is also the long standing auditor of Microsoft. According to a June 16, 2006 article in the Wall Street Journal, between 1992 and 1999, Microsoft “routinely issued options to new employees at the stock’s lowest closing price in the 30 days after they joined.”

Hiring-related stock options practices are at the heart of the securities class action lawsuit pending against Brocade Communications. The lawsuit was first filed against Brocade in May 2005. The Amended Complaint, filed April 14, 2006, alleges a variety of hiring related stock options practices designed to provide potential new hires the most potentially lucrative stock options grants. These practices allegedly took place because of the fierce competition for qualified job applicants during the tech bubble in the late 1990s. The hiring practices allegedly included giving new hires false start dates or backdating offer letters or even stock option grant dates to give new employees the advantage of lower stock option strike prices; and signing a new hire on as a current employee and then immediately placing him or her on a leave of absence (even thought the employee was still working at another company) so that Brocade could grant the new employee options at the earliest possible date and the lowest possible exercise price. The Amended Complaint alleges that these and other practices resulted in a misrepresentation of Brocade’s actual compensation expense and true financial condition. After an internal investigation, Brocade restated its financials, and, according to Brocade's 1Q06 10-Q subsequently offered to enter a settlement with the SEC. The plaintiffs have sued not only Brocade, and its directors and officers (including Larry Sonsini of the Wilson, Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati firm), and Brocade’s auditors, KMPG.

These hiring related stock options grants are in a different category from the options grants involved in the options backdating investigation – most of the options grants at the center of the options backdating investigation involve options that company officials granted themselves, as opposed to new hires. While the self-dealing allegedly involved in the options backdating investigation seems more inherently objectionable, the class action lawsuit and the SEC investigation involving Brocade shows that questions associated with hiring-related options grants can still cause companies a lot of problems. The lawsuits against the Micrel’s and Brocade’s auditors suggests the possibility that problems surrounding stock option grants could ensnare a wide variety of professionals, not merely the company officials involved in the stock options grants. The more interesting question is how potentially widespread the problems from hiring-related options grants may be. Given the popularity of stock option related compensation practices in the 1990s and early part of this decade, the problems arising from hiring-related options practices could prove to be even more widespread than the options backdating practices that have dominated the recent media coverage.

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