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SEC announces charges for $27 million 'lucrative market manipulation schemes'

Key Points
  • The SEC announces charges against a group of 10 individuals and their associated entities for long-running fraudulent schemes that brought in over $27 million.
  • Two of those charged are John O'Rourke, CEO of Riot Blockchain, and Barry Honig, once Riot's largest shareholder.
  • The SEC calls those charged "microcap fraudsters" in a press release.
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SEC charges 'microcap fraudsters' with market manipulation

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced on Friday charges against a group of 10 individuals and their associated entities for long-running fraudulent schemes that brought in over $27 million.

The SEC called those charged "microcap fraudsters" in a press release.

Two of those charged were John O'Rourke, CEO of Riot Blockchain, and Barry Honig, once Riot's largest shareholder. The charges are not related to Riot Blockchain, and it is not named or referenced in the complaint. Both O'Rourke and Honig are based in south Florida.

"Honig was the primary strategist, calling upon other Defendants to buy or sell stock, arrange for the issuance of shares, negotiate transactions, or engage in promotional activity," according to the SEC complaint. "In each scheme, Honig orchestrated his and his associates' acquisition of a large quantity of the issuer's stock at steep discounts, either by acquiring a shell and executing a reverse merger or by participating in financings on terms highly unfavorable to the company."

The SEC brought the action for "three highly profitable 'pump-and-dump' schemes perpetrated by Honig, [John] Stetson, [Michael] Brauser, [John] O'Rourke, [Mark] Groussman, and [Phillip] Frost, and their entities," the complaint alleged. Frost is a well-known biotech investor and founded Opko Health.

CNBC reached out to all those named in the complaint. Groussman said, "No comment." The other defendants were not immediately available.

The SEC also alleges the defendants arranged and paid for stock promotion.

"Honig then directed O'Rourke to write a promotional article, which O'Rourke published under the pseudonym 'Wall Street Advisors' on Seeking Alpha," the complaint said. "[O'Rourke] also knowingly and falsely claimed 'not receiving compensation'" for writing the article.

In another instance cited by the SEC, John Ford, also a defendant, allegedly failed to disclose in an article promoting a stock that he had been compensated by Honig for writing the article, with Honig selling him below-market shares.

Riot Blockchain is a cryptocurrency company whose stock price skyrocketed after it changed its name.

Riot's stock was down more than 24 percent on the news.

John O’Rourke, CEO of Riot Blockchain, shown here with CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, in the office of investor Barry Honig.
CNBC

A CNBC investigation in February found a number of red flags in the company's SEC filings that might make investors leery. The investigation revealed annual meetings that were postponed at the last minute, sales of stock by company insiders soon after the company's name change, dilutive share issuances on favorable terms to large investors, confusing SEC filings and evidence that a major shareholder was selling shares while everyone else was buying.

At the time, O'Rourke accused CNBC of publishing "a negative one-sided piece."

"We have made significant inroads in building a diversified portfolio of investments and to begin securing digital assets," O'Rourke said in a letter to shareholders the day the CNBC investigation aired.

For its investigation, CNBC visited Honig's office in Florida and met O'Rourke there. "[O'Rourke] currently works at an office in Boca Raton with Honig and Stetson, and at times, Groussman," the SEC said in its complaint.

"I have my own office in a separate location," O'Rourke said in an email in February sent by his lawyer, Nick Morgan, a partner with Paul Hastings. "I do have a good relationship with Mr. Honig and we speak often."

As bitcoin hit record highs in late December, Riot was making news on a daily basis. The company's stock shot from $8 a share to more than $40 as investors chased the craze of all things crypto.

But Riot had not been in the cryptobusiness for long. Until October, its name was Bioptix, and it was a biotech known for having a veterinary products patent and developing new ways to test for disease.

Riot warned it "may never become profitable," in its latest annual report.

"Even if we achieve profitability in the future, we may not be able to sustain profitability in subsequent periods," the report said.