Riot BlockChain CEO John O'Rourke is out, interim chief exec is named in wake of unrelated SEC charges

  • The CEO and chairman of Riot BlockChain has resigned in the wake of unrelated charges by the SEC against him for alleged fraud.
  • John O'Rourke who has been the company's CEO since Nov. 3, has been replaced by Chris Ensey and the new chairman of the board is Remo Mancini.
John O'Rourke (right) CEO of Riot Blockchain after a shareholders meeting in Oklahoma City on May 9, 2018.
Source: CNBC
John O'Rourke (right) CEO of Riot Blockchain after a shareholders meeting in Oklahoma City on May 9, 2018.

The CEO and chairman of Riot BlockChain has resigned in the wake of unrelated charges by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against him for alleged fraud in connection with other companies.

John O'Rourke who had been the company's CEO since Nov. 3, has been replaced by Chris Ensey and the new chairman of the board is Remo Mancini, the company said in a news release issued Saturday.

The release did not specify a reason for the resignation, but Riot was not part of the SEC complaint. O'Rourke did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Barry Honig, a Florida investor who was once Riot's largest shareholder, was also named in the SEC complaint.

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

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

"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," it added.

The SEC brought the action for "three highly profitable 'pump-and-dump' schemes perpetrated by Honig, [John] Stetson, [Michael] Brauser, 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 has reached out to all those named in the complaint. Groussman declined to comment while 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 in after-market trading on the news.

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 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 at 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.

Watch: CNBC investigates Riot BlockChain