While corporate disclosure in offer documents and to a lesser extent in annual reports is reasonably informative and neutral, material event disclosure still tends to consist of sanitized half truths. I have spent some time comparing:
- the Form 8-K filed with the US SEC by the Hewlett Packard Company on September 6, 2006 about its investigation of board room leaks, and
- the news report (“Leak, Inquiry and Resignation Rock a Boardroom” by Damon Darlin) about the same event in the New York Times of September 7, 2006
The New York Times reports that Thomas Perkins resigned from the HP Board in protest when he found that HP had used private detectives to monitor telephone calls by board members. It also reports that these detectives approached the phone company with the last four digits of Perkins’ social security number and tricked them into “revealing the multidigit code that would allow a person to set up an online account for access to billing statements ”. Using this the detectives viewed the list of his phone calls. According to the news report, Perkins regards this as “possible fraud, identity theft and misappropriation of personal records”
The same events are described in HP’s SEC filing as follows: “the Chairman of the Board, and ultimately an internal group within HP, working with a licensed outside firm specializing in investigations, conducted investigations into possible sources of the leaks of confidential information at HP. ... some form of ‘pretexting’ for phone record information, a technique used by investigators to obtain information by disguising their identity, had been used. ... The Committee was then advised by the Committee’s outside counsel that the use of pretexting at the time of the investigation was not generally unlawful (except with respect to financial institutions), but such counsel could not confirm that the techniques employed by the outside consulting firm and the party retained by that firm complied in all respects with applicable law.”
The SEC filing also asserts that the “Date of Earliest Event Reported” in the filing is August 31, 2006. Since the “pretexting” in question happened in May 2006 or earlier and had not previously been disclosed by HP, it would appear that this statement at least is false. Probably, HP wants to avoid an impression that it was tardy in filing the Form 8-K. Or perhaps, HP wants to claim that what is being disclosed is not all the sordid mess about the undercover investigation, but that as a result of the investigations, the Board decided on August 31, 2006 not to renominate George Keyworth who was reportedly the source of the leaks.
The Form 8-K filed by HP appears to me to be excessively sanitized to the extent of failing to communicate the gravity of the events. For example, “disguising their identity” is quite different from impersonating somebody else. It is evident that material event disclosure has a long way to go even in the US. In countries like India, the state of affairs is much worse.