Adelphia Communications, the troubled cable operator, dismissed its auditors, Deloitte & Touche, yesterday, even as the company appeared to come closer to filing for bankruptcy protection, people briefed on the situation said yesterday.
Adelphia's outside directors and corporate governance experts have questioned Deloitte & Touche's dual role as the accountant for both the company and a set of outside entitites, both of which were controlled by the Rigas family.
By yesterday, the directors had decided that Deloitte's knowledge of questionable accounting practices between Adelphia and the family-controlled entities, and its failure to understand them or disclose them was unacceptable.
Adelphia disclosed in March that it had guaranteed $2.3 billion in loans to the entities, and since then a wide number of undisclosed related party transactions between Adelphia and the family entities have been uncovered.
People briefed on the situation said that the company had been reluctant to dismiss its accountants, because of the time it would take another auditor to become familiar with Adelphia's complex and possibly fraudulent financial statements. However, the directors have been meeting with alternative auditors and expect to name one no later than today. A Deloitte & Touche spokeswoman did not return phone calls yesterday.
Meanwhile, Leonard Tow, a major Adelphia shareholder who won two board seats last week, has indicated to several associates that he has become increasingly frustrated at the prospect of obtaining new financing for Adelphia, whether by getting banks to resume lending to the company, finding buyers for assets or identifying private equity investors.
Analysts expect the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this week, since it has a $50 million interest payment on bonds due Saturday that it cannot pay. Bondholders could force the company into bankruptcy if it does not act first.
Meanwhile, the company is expected to file new documents with the government today or tomorrow that reveal further apparent misrepresentation of key financial data.
The filings are likely to throw new light on such basic questions as just how many subscribers Adelphia actually has. It has claimed 5.8 million subscribers, but that figure, these people said, could be inflated by 200,000 or more. There were reports last week that the amount the company inflated its subscribers could be as high as 500,000, but people briefed yesterday said it appeared closer to 200,000, at this point.
About 100,000 of those subscribers are customers who purchased only Internet service from Adelphia, but did not become cable subscribers, these people said. Adelphia began counting such customers as subscribers two and a half years ago, but it was not disclosed to investors, they said.
One additional source of the inflated figures may have been that the company did not reduce subscriber counts in newly acquired systems if it found those numbers were exaggerated, these people added.
The company's motivation for inflating its subscriber numbers is not clear, however. Like other cable operators, Adelphia purchases programming on a per-subscriber basis, and it seems unlikely that Adelphia would have been willing to pay for subscribers that it did not have.
The company is also trying to pin down the exact amount by which cash flow was inflated through a technique in which Adelphia essentially paid a premium for digital set-top boxes which was then returned to to the company in the form of a fee. That arrangement would have inflated estimated 2001 cash flow of $1.55 billion only by tens of millions of dollars, these people said.
In addition, documents that will be filed this week show that the company will sell, for about $20 million, timberland for which it paid about $26.6 million. Despite the loss, the sale will generate badly needed cash.
The initial purchase of the timberland exemplified the commingling of the Rigas family's finances with Adelphia's, whose exposure has brought the company to the precipice.
The family paid $434,000 for the land and had Adelphia buy the timber rights for $26.6 million with an arrangement that both the land and the rights would revert to the family at no cost after 20 years.
According to the people briefed on the company's plans, the filings this week will provide new details of the original transaction.
The seller wanted $27 million for the land
and timber rights, but the first appraisal that the Rigases obtained valued
the timber rights at only $20 million, these people said. Balking at having
to pay $7 million of their own money for the land, the family members found
a second source to appraise the timber rights at $26.6 million, allowing
them to limit their own investment to $434,000.