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While the Hewlett-Packard Co accounting scandal has produced several losers, it also produced one potentially very big winner: the whistleblower.
HP said on Tuesday that a whistleblower had alleged improper accounting at Autonomy, the British software company it bought last year, and said it is taking an $8.8 billion charge.
If true, the revelations could lead to a huge financial award for the whistleblower, who the company has not identified, courtesy of a new program run by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But before anyone gets rich, several conditions have to be met.
First, the U.S. government has to collect its money. To be eligible for an award, a whistleblower must have provided information to regulators that led to court-ordered monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million.
In addition, the information has to be original and be given voluntarily, conditions which the HP whistleblower seems to have met.
The SEC does not require that tipsters come from the United States. In the HP case, the whistleblower is a senior executive at Autonomy who remained at the company after it was acquired, a source familiar with the situation has told Reuters. The source did not want to be named due to lack of authority to speak about the matter.
The program allows for awards to whistleblowers who first report their allegations to internal compliance officers, so long as the same information is passed on to the government soon afterward.
If all the conditions are satisfied, the whistleblower could receive an award of between 10 and 30 percent of the sanctions collected by the SEC and other U.S. regulators.
Regulators take into account the significance of the information and the assistance provided by the whistleblower in deciding the size of the award.
The program was created by the financial overhaul known as Dodd-Frank, which was enacted in 2010. It was modeled on the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law that provides monetary incentives to whistleblowers to provide information about companies that defraud the government.
The SEC made its first award under the program in August 2012, paying nearly $50,000 to an unnamed whistleblower who alerted the SEC to a multimillion dollar investment fraud that resulted in more than $1 million in court-ordered sanctions.
Given the numbers involved in the HP case, any potential award could be ten times bigger. In a case in 2006, American International Group agreed to pay $800 million to resolve allegations of improper accounting involving transactions with Gen Re.
But it's still unclear whether the SEC will pursue the HP case, much less impose any fines.
Reuters has reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing the HP-Autonomy allegations in concert with the SEC, but the probe is still in its initial stage.
HP has said it alerted regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, but there is no similar program for whistleblowers in Britain.
There has been no award so far for Michael Woodford, the former chief executive of the Japanese camera and medical equipment maker Olympus Corp, who questioned deals that were found to have concealed a $1.7 billion accounting scandal. In that case, most of the regulatory action over the scandal has been handled by Japanese officials.
Woodford said he's not sure if he would apply for an award, even if U.S. regulators imposed fines on Olympus. "I haven't given it much thought," he said.