You can't help but wonder who or what to believe when trying to match documents with disclosures at
. IDT bills itself as "a leading emerging multinational carrier" with businesses that range from marketing prepaid calling cards and providing long-distance services for other carriers to transmitting phone calls over the Internet. Its
Internet unit, in fact, is in the process of being spun off to the public as a separate company.
Lermer Overseas Telecommunications
, a private telecommunications holding company with close ties to IDT. A look at those ties raises the question of whether publicly traded IDT lent money to a company that apparently does not technically exist.
Stay with me as we walk through this.
The "Lermer" in Lermer is Simon Lermer, a close business associate of IDT founder and CEO Howard Jonas. Jonas' sister, Joyce Mason, who is also IDT's general counsel, actually filed Lermer Overseas' original incorporation documentation in 1993. Simon Lermer once served as a director of IDT and helped Jonas start what is now IDT, according to IDT President James Courter, a former New Jersey congressman and onetime Republican New Jersey candidate for governor.
IDT isn't the only link between Simon Lermer and Howard Jonas. Simon Lermer helped Howard Jonas start a publishing venture,
. IDT Prez Courter says Lermer still acts as an adviser and consultant to Jonas' publishing activities; he even has a desk there.
The relationship hasn't been a one-way street. IDT fed biz Lermer's way to the tune of $2.1 million in fiscal 1996 and $2.4 million in fiscal 1995, according to IDT public filings. And just last year, the filings add, IDT provided Lermer Overseas with a $25 million revolving line of credit at the attractive rate of 5%.
Here's where the story gets sticky: The credit line to Lermer was dated May 1998. But according to the New York secretary of state, Lermer Overseas was dissolved in September 1997 for failing to pay the state franchise tax.
That's not all: According to
Dun & Bradstreet
, as of April 1998, Simon Lermer was merely vice president of Lermer Overseas. The president, D&B said, was Howard Bolter. Could they have meant Howard Balter (with an "a" instead of an "o"), who until recently was chief operating officer of IDT and is currently CEO of Net2Phone? (Reminder: Net2Phone is the Internet unit of IDT.) Net2Phone's S-1 IPO filing says nothing about Balter's being involved with Lermer Overseas. However, according to a February 1994 contract obtained by this column, Balter
identified by Lermer as its vice president and principal contact.
Contacted yesterday, Balter said he hasn't had anything to do with Lermer since it was set up. "I have not been involved with the company," he said. "I think it must be a mistake." Dun & Bradstreet, however, says it relies on information provided by companies and usually contacts companies twice a year.
run Lermer Overseas? Courter, IDT's president, says Lermer's current CEO is Nissim Crespi, who lives in Israel. He adds that IDT reviews Lermer's financials monthly, but he doesn't know how many people work at Lermer, which he says has "teams of people in the field" for its principal business of routing international telephone traffic to long-distance carriers.
Why didn't it pay its taxes to New York? Courter says he suspects it was an "inadvertent" error by a company that is run by "a group of technical people" who hadn't paid attention to such minute details as incorporation papers. "IDT didn't know they were unprofessional in keeping up-to-date records," he says. "And we will be contacting Lermer
with the demand to reinstate its charter; otherwise we will call the loan."
Simon Lermer's side of the story? Hard to say; he couldn't be located. Courter says he tends to "travels a lot." A call to a Manhattan phone number for Lermer Overseas provided by Dun & Bradstreet rang at the office of an attorney. I left a message. A call to the telephone directory for Simon Lermer in the Bronx, N.Y., rang to the office of another attorney. A call to a referral number that one of my sources had for Lermer (a New Jersey number that is one digit off from IDT's) rings at Jonas Publishing.
Twice last week, the people answering the phone at Jonas said they hadn't heard of Simon Lermer. Today, a different receptionist at the same number said Lermer hadn't arrived, but was expected, and put me into his voice mail. (I left a message; if he or the attorney returns my calls, I'll provide the comments in a future column.)
I also called IDT and punched Simon Lermer's name into the company's automated phone directory. It rang (what a surprise!) at the office of the same attorney who was listed in D&B for Lermer Overseas.
More on this saga when (and if) it unfolds.
Confirming this column's earlier
reports, Tom Doherty, one of the top financial execs of
Lernout & Hauspie
, has left the company. Doherty was the contact best known to Wall Street. Lernout tried to put a positive spin on the story this morning, saying that it was strengthening its financial position. Doherty, who had been senior VP of finance, left to rejoin a firm that specializes in turnarounds and interim management.
Time will be the ultimate arbiter.
Sifting through the garbage:
Tuesday's warning by
that its second-quarter earnings will miss analysts' estimates came as a surprise to everybody, it appears, but company insiders. Bob Gabele, director of insider research at
First Call/Thomson Financial
(and a columnist for
), muses that he spotted record insider selling at the company in May, when 13 insiders shed more than 1 million shares at prices from $51.74 to $56.41. The sellers included President and Chief Operating Officer Rodney Proto, who sold 25% of his holdings. At last check, the stock was off 17 3/8, or 32%, to around 36 3/16. A spokeswoman wasn't immediately available for comment.
Herb Greenberg writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, though he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Greenberg also writes a monthly column for Fortune.