Philip A. Falcone and Harbinger Charged with Securities Fraud
The Securities and Exchange Commission recently filed fraud charges against New York-based hedge fund adviser Philip A. Falcone and his advisory firm, Harbinger Capital Partners LLC for illicit conduct that included misappropriation of client assets, market manipulation, and betraying clients. The SEC also charged Peter A. Jenson, Harbinger’s former Chief Operating Officer, for aiding and abetting the misappropriation scheme. Additionally, the SEC reached a settlement with Harbinger for unlawful trading.
In a separate, settled action, the SEC charged Harbert Management Corporation, whose affiliates served as the managing members of two Harbinger-related entities, as a controlling person in the market manipulation.
The SEC alleges that Falcone used fund assets to pay his taxes, conducted an illegal “short squeeze” to manipulate bond prices, secretly favored 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, favored 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 favorable 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 favored 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 authorized 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 rumors 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 percent 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 favored 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 stabilize 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 favored 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.
Settlement with Harbert Management Company:
In a separate complaint also filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the SEC filed a settled civil action against Harbert and two related investment entities – HMC-New York Inc. and HMC Investors, LLC – for their role in the illegal short squeeze described above.
The SEC alleges in its complaint against Harbert that during the entire period of the short squeeze, Defendants Harbert, HMC-NY and HMC Investors, directly or indirectly, possessed the power to control Falcone and the investment managers through which he operated. HMC-NY and HMC Investors, two entities controlled by Harbert, served as the managing members of two limited liability companies that acted as the general partners of the funds advised by Falcone.
Harbert and its affiliates also provided hedge fund administrative, legal, compliance, risk assessment and other services to the funds. In these capacities, Harbert, HMC-NY and HMC Investors knew of Falcone’s trades in the MAAX bonds, but failed to take appropriate steps to address Falcone’s manipulative conduct. The SEC charged the Harbert defendants as controlling persons pursuant to Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act, alleging that they are jointly and severally liable for Falcone’s and the Harbinger investment managers’ violations of the antifraud provisions of the Exchange Act.
Without admitting or denying the allegations of the complaint, Defendants Harbert, HMC-NY and HMC Investors have agreed to pay a civil penalty in the amount of $1 million. The Harbert defendants also have consented to the entry of a judgment enjoining them from violations of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 thereunder. The proposed settlement with Harbert is subject to approval by the court.
In the pending federal court actions concerning the first three fraudulent schemes described above, the Commission seeks a variety of sanctions and relief including injunctions against Falcone and Harbinger from violations of the anti-fraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933, the Exchange Act, and the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.
In addition, the Commission seeks to enjoin Harbinger and Falcone from controlling any person who violates the anti-fraud provisions of the Exchange Act. As for monetary relief, the Commission seeks disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, prejudgment interest, and civil money penalties from Falcone and Harbinger. The Commission further seeks to prohibit Falcone from serving as an officer and director of any public company. Against Jenson, the Commission seeks to enjoin Jenson from aiding and abetting future violations of the anti-fraud provisions of the Exchange Act and Advisers Act and seeks to obtain monetary penalties.