In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that three companies appeared to have “backdated” stock option grants to their senior executives, pretending that the options had been awarded when the stock price was at its lowest price of the quarter, or even year. An executive who exercised the option thus paid the company an artificially low price, which stole money from the corporate coffers. While stock options are designed to incentivize recipients to drive the company’s stock price up, backdating options to artificially low prices undercut those incentives, overpaid executives, violated tax rules, and decreased shareholder value.
Kessler Topaz worked with a financial analyst to identify dozens of other companies that had engaged in similar practices, and filed more than 50 derivative suits challenging the practice. These suits sought to force the executives to disgorge their improper compensation and to revamp the companies’ executive compensation policies. Ultimately, as lead counsel in these derivative actions, Kessler Topaz achieved significant monetary and non-monetary benefits at dozens of companies, including:
Comverse Technology, Inc.: Settlement required Comverse’s founder and CEO Kobi Alexander, who fled to Namibia after the backdating was revealed, to disgorge more than $62 million in excessive backdated option compensation. The settlement also overhauled the company’s corporate governance and internal controls, replacing a number of directors and corporate executives, splitting the Chairman and CEO positions, and instituting majority voting for directors.
Monster Worldwide, Inc.: Settlement required recipients of backdated stock options to disgorge more than $32 million in unlawful gains back to the company, plus agreeing to significant corporate governance measures. These measures included (a) requiring Monster’s founder Andrew McKelvey to reduce his voting control over Monster from 31% to 7%, by exchanging super-voting stock for common stock; and (b) implementing new equity granting practices that require greater accountability and transparency in the granting of stock options moving forward. In approving the settlement, the court noted “the good results, mainly the amount of money for the shareholders and also the change in governance of the company itself, and really the hard work that had to go into that to achieve the results….”
Affiliated Computer Services, Inc.: Settlement required executives, including founder Darwin Deason, to give up $20 million in improper backdated options. The litigation was also a catalyst for the company to replace its CEO and CFO and revamp its executive compensation policies.