Grand jury probing accounting methods of cable company

Saturday, August 17, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- A federal grand jury is examining the accounting practices of Charter Communications, the nation's fourth-largest cable television company, Charter officials said Friday.

"We are taking this very seriously and cooperating fully," Charter spokesman David Andersen said. The company denies any wrongdoing.

Charter, controlled by billionaire Paul Allen, received a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis on Thursday. Justice Department officials would not comment.

Andersen said the subpoena sought documents related to how the company accounts for costs for current and disconnected cable TV subscribers. St. Louis-based Charter serves more than 6.8 million customers in 40 states.

Since July, some analysts have raised concerns about Charter's accounting practices, such as counting as cable subscribers customers who purchase the company's cable-modem Internet access but not cable TV.

Shareholders have expressed concern, too, through nine class-action lawsuits over the last month. The most recent was filed Thursday in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.

One year ago, Charter stock peaked at $22 per share. On Friday, shares dropped 18 cents, or 6.6 percent, to $2.53 on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Analyst Juli Niemann of RT Jones in St. Louis said the steep decline is the result of uneasiness about debt the company took on through a series of mergers combined with a leveling out in the number of new cable subscribers. The company has $17.6 billion in debt.

Fine-tooth comb

The subpoena is a response to just how worried the market remains about corporate honesty in the wake of allegations against the likes of Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia Communications Corp., the No. 6 cable company, Niemann said.

"I think it's a case of you're guilty until proven innocent," she said. "Everybody is going over everything with a fine-tooth comb. This is that kind of market where you have to prove your accountability."

In February, Charter announced a change in accounting for how it deals with customers who don't pay their bills. The company said it tightened its collection policy and procedures relating to those customers. It has since removed 145,000 subscribers.

The lawsuit on Thursday accused Charter of issuing a series of false and misleading statements to the market over the last three years. Among other things, the suit said Charter issued quarterly reports that inappropriately boosted earnings by improperly capitalizing the firm's labor costs.

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