AOL's Ties to WorldCom, Executive Statements Reportedly Probed

AOL Time Warner ( AOL) was under fire on several fronts Friday as scrutiny of its ties to WorldCom and of optimistic revenue forecasts by stock-selling executives last year dragged the shares lower.

The shares were down more than 5% to $13.30 in the Instinet premarket session.

London's Financial Times reported Friday that the Securities and Exchange Commission plans to investigate positive comments made by AOL executives last year during a period when stock sales by 15 company insiders produced some $500 million in profits.

Executives including Chairman Steve Case and Chief Executive Dick Parsons were among the sellers at a time when the media conglomerate repeatedly assured Wall Street it would be able to meet ambitious financial goals. The article said there's no reason to suspect the executives didn't believe the forecasts at the time they were made.

This new aspect of the probe follows revelations last week that AOL was reviewing several transactions at its America Online business that might have overstated revenue.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the lion's share of that questionable revenue came from now-bankrupt WorldCom, a company with which AOL had grown uncomfortably close over the past several years. AOL was reportedly WorldCom's biggest customer and recently negotiated a deal in which the telecom was supposed to have paid it $200 million a year to advertise on its media properties in exchange for maintaining close to a billion dollars in Internet business on WorldCom's network. That deal was reportedly negotiated between two figures who are rapidly becoming lightning rods for allegations of digital excess, WorldCom's former CFO Scott Sullivan and former AOL dealmaker David Colburn.

WorldCom defended their dealings with AOL. "These were perfectly legitimate business deals," Bradford Burns, a WorldCom spokesman, told the Journal. "If people find issue with them, all of corporate America might as well close the doors and go home."

Separately, the Journal reported that AOL could face another huge accounting charge to write down intangible assets on its balance sheet. The company is already the record holder for the biggest-ever charge in the annals of corporate America, a $54.2 billion pretax hit reflecting the decline in the value of assets related to its acquisition of Time Warner.

The article said another big writedown could prove problematic under the covenants of a recently secured line of credit that forbids the company to let its book value fall below $50 billion.

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