Arik Hesseldahl

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Autonomy Founder Lynch Blames Accounting Standards in HP Flap

Mike Lynch says Hewlett-Packard has a problem with math. The founder and former CEO of the British software firm Autonomy says that at least some of the $5 billion written off by Hewlett-Packard earlier this week can be attributed to differences in international accounting standards.

In an interview with Reuters, Lynch, who was dismissed from running Autonomy by HP CEO Meg Whitman in May, says he’s gone through the books of his former firm and has found that differences between the accounting standards observed in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom can account for at least some of the differences in how things are interpreted.

Lynch made similar comments in an interview with AllThingsD Tuesday, though he hasn’t sought to put any numbers behind the contention.

Like most U.S.-based companies, HP followed GAAP, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles put out by the U.S.-based non-profit Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). As a U.K. company, Autonomy had adhered instead to the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) maintained by the International Accounting Standards Committee.

Lynch has maintained that differences in how revenue is recognized under the two systems leave a lot of room for interpretation in some of the matters in which he and his senior managers stand accused. One relates to licensing revenue. When a company bundles the cost of a software license, service and support into a single ongoing contract, GAAP accounting rules are more strict than IFRS rules in how the payments are accounted.

Answering one of the big accusations by HP, Lynch acknowledged that, at least some of the time, Autonomy did sell desktop machines with Autonomy software installed at a slight loss. In those cases, the customer would agree to help Autonomy market its product and, in those cases, the losses were recorded as marketing expenses. HP says that these improperly recorded hardware sales inflated Autonomy’s revenue by as much as 10 percent to 15 percent prior to its acquisition by HP.

Another difference:Cases where Autonomy would sell its software through 400 middleman companies known as Value Added Resellers (VAR), who turn around and sell the software as part of larger package deals. In Autonomy’s case, some of those VARs included both IBM and India’s Wipro. Under IFRS rules, a sale to a VAR can be booked as revenue before the resale takes place. Under GAAP, it’s not revenue to Autonomy until the resale takes place.

Lynch has also said that once HP took over at Autonomy, its own practices and bureaucracy slowed things down. Salespeople were paid commissions to sell products that compete with Autonomy, he said, but not for selling Autonomy products. On top of that, he accused HP of jacking up prices on the Autonomy software by 30 percent, driving loyal customers away.

He also said in numerous interviews that HP had “ambushed” him with all this, and that he had no idea what was coming. That’s not quite true, according to sources in HP’s camp, who say that the company had a conversation with him in mid-June, after a former member of Lynch’s senior management team is said to have come forward as a whistleblower. “He has been aware since then that we had questions about all of this,” one source told me. HP execs considered his answers to their questions to be “not satisfactory at all.”

At that point, I’m told, communications between HP and Lynch and other former Autonomy executives ended. After CEO Meg Whitman hinted, in remarks at an analysts meeting in San Francisco in October, that more restatements might be coming, certain former Autonomy executives started calling around to friends and former colleagues still working for HP, trying to find out what was coming. They had reason to expect a sizable impairment charge. What has apparently caught Lynch, et al, by surprise, is the referral to the authorities in the U.S. and the U.K. for possible criminal investigation. In the U.S., the FBI is said to be taking the lead.

One observation: Lynch tells Reuters he hasn’t yet lawyered up, which, if he hadn’t said it, would be pretty obvious anyway. Any lawyer worth their fee would have advised Lynch to stop talking publicly about all of this.

(Image of Jon Lovitz as “Master Thespian,” circa 1985. Yes, I’m dating myself.)

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