The SEC has filed fraud charges against hedge fund billionaire Phil Falcone and his Harbinger Capital Partners, Bloomberg reported.The regulatory agency alleges that Falcone and his fund engaged in “illicit conduct that included misappropriation of client assets, market manipulation and betraying clients,” the release said.
Peter Jenson, Harbinger’s former Chief Operating Officer who left the fund in Jan. 2011, was also charged by the SEC for allegedly aiding and abetting the misappropriation scheme.
In a statement, the SEC said it has also reached a settlement with Harbinger for unlawful trading.
Falcone’s hedge fund has agreed to pay disgorgement of $857,950, prejudgment interest in the amount of $91,838 and a civil monetary penalty in the amount of $428,975, the release said.
We’re going through the complaint now and we’ll have more updates in a moment.
Here’s an excerpt from the SEC’s release (Emphasis ours):
The SEC alleges that Falcone used fund assets to pay his taxes, conducted an illegal “short squeeze” to manipulate bond prices, secretly favoured certain customers at the expense of others, and that Harbinger unlawfully bought equity securities in a public offering, after having sold short the same security during a restricted period.
“Today’s charges read like the final exam in a graduate school course in how to operate a hedge fund unlawfully,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Clients and market participants alike were victimized as Falcone unscrupulously used fund assets to pay his personal taxes, manipulated the market for certain bonds, favoured some clients at the expense of others, and violated trading rules intended to prohibit manipulative short sales.”
The SEC filed actions in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Falcone, Jenson, and Harbinger, and, in connection with the illegal trading scheme, separately instituted and settled administrative and cease-and-desist proceedings against Harbinger.
In particular, the SEC alleges that:
- Falcone fraudulently obtained $113.2 million from a hedge fund that he advised and misappropriated the proceeds to pay his personal taxes;
- Falcone and two Harbinger investment managers through which Falcone operated manipulated the price and availability of a series of distressed high-yield bonds by engaging in an illegal “short squeeze;”
- Falcone and Harbinger secretly offered and granted favourable redemption and liquidity rights to certain strategically-important investors in exchange for those investors’ consent to restrict redemption rights of other fund investors, and concealed the arrangement from the fund’s directors and investors; and
- Harbinger engaged in illegal trades in connection with the purchase of common stock in three public offerings after having sold the same securities short during a restricted period.
“Not only are hedge fund managers expected to be savvy investors, they are supposed to serve the interests of their clients. Here, in addition to raiding a fund for personal benefit and cutting secret deals with favoured investors, Falcone then lied to investors about what he had done,” said Bruce Karpati, Chief of the Asset Management Unit in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.
Describing the illegal short squeeze, Gerald W. Hodgkins, Associate Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement said, “After he took control of an entire issue of high-yield bonds, Falcone kept buying with an eye toward rigging the market and punishing short sellers to settle a score. In the process, Falcone hijacked the market for the bonds and illegally manipulated their price and availability. The Division will continue to police the bond market to make sure it operates as an efficient market, free of the corrosive effects of manipulators such as Falcone.”
In the misappropriation scheme, the SEC alleges that Falcone unlawfully used fund assets to pay his personal taxes. In 2009 Falcone owed federal and state authorities $113.2 million in taxes. Declining to pursue other financing options, such as pledging his personal assets as collateral for a bank loan, Falcone elected instead to take a $113.2 million loan from the Harbinger Capital Partners Special Situations Fund, L.P. – the same fund from which Harbinger had earlier suspended investors from redeeming.
Falcone authorised the transfer of fund assets to himself in a transaction that Jenson helped structure. Falcone and Harbinger never sought or obtained consent from investors prior to using the fund’s assets to benefit Falcone.
As part of the misappropriation scheme, the SEC alleges that Falcone and Harbinger, aided by Jenson, made several material misrepresentations and omissions in seeking legal advice regarding the loan and in subsequent communications with investors, including, among other things:
- the financing alternatives available to Falcone;
- the circumstances that led to Falcone’s need for the loan;
- the ability of the Special Situations Fund to furnish the loan, without disadvantaging investors;
- the terms and conditions of the loan, including the interest rate charged and the amount of collateral posted by Falcone; and
- the role of Harbinger’s outside legal counsel in vetting the transaction.
The SEC also alleges that Falcone and Harbinger delayed disclosing the loan for approximately five months because of their concern that disclosure of Falcone’s financial condition might have a negative impact on investor withdrawals and on Falcone’s ability to attract more investments for other Harbinger funds. Falcone repaid the loan in 2011, after the Commission commenced its investigation.
Market Manipulation/ Illegal Short Squeeze
In a separate civil action, the SEC alleges that from 2006 through early 2008 Falcone and two Harbinger investment management entities manipulated the market in a series of distressed high-yield bonds issued by MAAX Holdings Inc. In this fraudulent scheme, Falcone and the Harbinger entities allegedly orchestrated an illegal “short squeeze” – a market manipulation scheme in which an investor constricts the supply of a security, through large purchases or other means, with the intent of forcing settlement from short sellers at arbitrary and inflated prices.
The SEC’s complaint alleges that at Falcone’s direction, Harbinger purchased a large position in the MAAX bonds during April and June of 2006. After hearing rumours that a Wall Street financial services firm was shorting the MAAX bonds and also encouraging its customers to do the same, Falcone decided to seek revenge. In September 2006, Falcone directed the Harbinger-managed funds to buy every available bond in the market, often purchasing the bonds from short sellers. Ultimately, Falcone raised the funds’ stake to approximately 13 per cent more than the available supply of the MAAX bonds.
At one point, Harbinger had purchased 22 million more bonds than MAAX had ever issued. Contemporaneously with these purchases, Falcone locked up the MAAX bonds the Harbinger funds had purchased in a custodial account at a bank in Georgia to prevent his brokers from lending out the bonds to sellers seeking to deliver the bonds to purchasers after short sales.
Having seized control of the supply of the MAAX bonds, Falcone then demanded that the Wall Street firm and its customers settle their outstanding MAAX short sales, not disclosing that it would be virtually impossible to find bonds available for delivery. The Wall Street firm bid daily for the bonds, which quickly doubled in price. Then, Falcone engaged in a series of transactions with certain short sellers at arbitrary, inflated prices, while at the same time valuing the funds’ holdings on his books at a small fraction of the prices he charged the covering short sellers.
Preferential Redemption Scheme
In its action alleging misappropriation, the SEC also alleges that in a further breach of Falcone and Harbinger’s fiduciary duties to their clients, Falcone and Harbinger engaged in unlawful preferential redemptions for the benefit of certain favoured investors.
In 2009, while soliciting required investor approval to restrict withdrawals from another Harbinger fund, Falcone and Harbinger secretly exempted certain large investors that Falcone deemed to be strategically important from soon-to-be imposed liquidity restrictions – provided those investors voted to approve restrictions that would temporarily stabilise the decline in Harbinger’s assets under management.
Ultimately, pursuant to these ‘vote buying’ agreements, Falcone and Harbinger allegedly permitted these investors who were connected to certain favoured institutional investors to withdraw a total of approximately $169 million. Harbinger concealed these quid pro quo arrangements from the independent directors and from fund investors.
Other Illegal Trading by Harbinger
In a separate administrative and cease-and-desist proceeding, the SEC found that between April and June 2009, Harbinger violated Rule 105 of Regulation M of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act). Rule 105 is an anti-manipulation rule that prohibits short selling securities during a restricted period and then purchasing the same securities in a public offering.
The Commission’s Order censures Harbinger and requires the firm to cease and desist from committing or causing any violations of Rule 105 now or in the future. Harbinger will pay disgorgement in the amount of $857,950, prejudgment interest in the amount of $91,838, and a civil monetary penalty in the amount of $428,975. Harbinger consented to the issuance of the Order without admitting or denying any of the Commission’s findings.