AOL could restate millions more as probe drags on

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Federal investigators looking into America Online Inc.'s (AOL) accounting practices are now focusing on two advertising deals the company forged with German media giant Bertelsmann AG, which may result in AOL having to issue further restatements to its financial results.

AOL parent company AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOLTW) revealed regulators' concern over the Bertelsmann deals in a quarterly filing submitted with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Friday. Both the SEC and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have initiated probes into AOL's accounting practices, which has led the company to launch its own internal investigation and restate nearly two years worth of financial results, totalling US$190 million.

Now the SEC is taking the "preliminary view" that two transactions AOL made with Bertelsmann "should be adjusted," AOLTW said in the filing. The deals total US$125 million and $275 million, and represent the largest multitransaction deals AOL entered into during the period under review, AOLTW said.

The SEC is looking into Bertelsmann's purchase of $400 million worth of advertising on the Internet service in relation to AOL's payment to Bertelsmann for its stake in AOL Europe.

According to the filing, the SEC has told AOL that it believes that at least some portion of the revenue gained from the ad deals should have been booked as a reduction in the AOL Europe purchase price. The Bertelsmann probe reflects earlier concerns made by investigators that AOL double-booked revenue in an effort to prop up its share price ahead of the 2001 AOL-Time Warner merger.

AOLTW said in the filing that "it is not yet possible to predict the outcome of these investigations, but it is possible that further restatement of the company's financial statements may be necessary." Additionally, the company said that the SEC is continuing to investigate "a range of other transactions principally involving the America Online unit."

News of another possible financial restatement comes as AOLTW is desperately trying to reassure investors that it is putting its derailed Internet unit back on track.

Once considered the jewel of the merged company, AOL has experienced a loss in both its advertising revenue and subscriber growth in recent quarters, causing AOLTW's stock price to tumbled since the January 2001 merger. What's more, the company has been bleeding executives, including AOL founder Steve Case, who announced he was stepping down as chairman in January, and AOLTW Vice Chairman Ted Turner, who announced his intention to leave two weeks later.

Furthermore, AOLTW reported a $99 billion loss for 2002, which included a $44.5 billion noncash charge due largely to the diminishing value of its AOL Internet unit.

Despite the odds, AOL has been struggling to regain its footing, recruiting fresh blood to its ranks and rolling out a series of new products and services aimed at recapturing marketshare.

The company officially rolled out its new AOL for Broadband service Monday, hoping to gain ground in the high-speed market. The broadband push is being accompanied by a multimillion dollar ad campaign, touting the slogan "Welcome to the World Wide Wow."

It remains to be seen if the Dulles, Virginia, Internet division can wow consumers while leaving no more surprises for federal investigators.

Shares of AOLTW (AOL) traded down 2.73 percent to $11.04 Monday morning.

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