The SEC's complaint of fraud against Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a "road map to criminal charges," said Jim Stewart, on of The New York Times reporters behind an explosive interview with the billionaire tech executive.
"[The complaint] says over and over again. It talks about the [short sellers] and the implied motive that he wanted to punish the shorts, which would be a manipulation," Stewart, also a CNBC contributor, told "Squawk on the Street" on Friday. "It doesn't matter in a SEC case what his motive is. That goes only to criminal intent, where the bar is higher. And it seems to me they put that warning in, saying you know, 'You think this is bad, well look where this could go.'"
The SEC sued Musk on Thursday in connection with an Aug. 7 tweet about taking the company private. The complaint alleges Musk made "false and misleading" statements and seeks, among other remedies, to remove Musk as CEO of Tesla and bar him from running a public company in the future.
Tesla said earlier this month that the Department of Justice was also looking into the Aug. 7 tweet.
A DOJ criminal case would likely pause the SEC's civil case, Stewart said. A guilty verdict in a criminal case could mean jail time for Musk.
CNBC reported earlier Friday that Musk pulled the plug on an SEC settlement at the last minute.
"If the settlement deal really was that we're going to kind of slap you on the wrist and you have to step down as chairman for two years, that is a great deal," Stewart said. "I cannot fathom why they would have walked away from that."