Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Did the SEC Give Overstock.com the 'Allied Capital Treatment'?

The Washington Post had a great article yesterday describing a recently released -- if heavily redacted -- report by the SEC Inspector General David Kotz, describing how the SEC flubbed an investigation of a company called Allied Capital, instead turning its guns on short-seller David Einhorn, who had blown the whistle.

Allied filed for bankruptcy in October 2008, but not before Einhorn was the subject of a smear campaign by Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne's "Deep Capture" website. Byrne claimed that Allied was among the terrific companies (including Overstock, natch, but also including innocent companies like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) that were "attacked" by horrid people like Einhorn.

The parallels between Allied and Overstock are startling:
  • Both were probed for accounting irregularities at the instigation of short-sellers.
  • Both managed instead to get critics investigated--Einhorn in the case of Allied, Gradient Analytics in the case of Overstock.
  • Both engaged in issuer retaliation, including a campaign against Einhorn by Allied and Byrne's smear campaign against whistleblower Sam Antar, conducted by Byrne's employee Judd Bagley (right), a possible pederast noted recently for stalking the kids and spouses of Byrne's critics.
  • Both were guilty as hell. Allied eventually succumbed to its own sliminess, and Overstock, under renewed SEC investigation, has recently admitted that its financial statements were completely fatuous. Antar's analysis of Overstock's accounting was completely vindicated.
The Post article focused on the SEC's malfeasance, including the excessive deference the SEC granted former SEC lawyers in the employ of Allied. The Post article notes that "Among other things, Kotz questions how SEC officials decide to open investigations and whether they are unduly influenced by outside lawyers -- particularly former SEC officials -- in conducting the probes."

It's not entirely clear if that's another commonality, though Overstock had on its payroll at least one ex-SEC lawyer, a proud lawyer for stock market thieves named Brent Baker. He worked for Overstock from 2004 until joining a Salt Lake City law firm in August 2006, and was at Overstock at the same time the SEC was probing critics of Overstock and subpoenaing reporters Herb Greenberg (also targeted by Allied) and Carol Remond, who had written critically of the company. The subpoeanas were later withdrawn.

As Joe Nocera observed in the New York Times at about the time those subpoenas were issued, Byrne sent Greenberg a gloating email three days before the subpoenas were issued. That stinks to high heaven. How did Byrne find out about the subpoenas?

Baker once belched forth the following creepy sentiments in his now-deleted blog "sectales.com," responding to a comment I once had made about issuer retaliation:
Guess what? Patrick and the DeepCapture folks are all correct. I saw it from within the belly of the beast and I can honestly tell you that "bent journalists" are more of a problem for our capital markets than "retailating issuers." Give me a break.
The SEC inspector general needs to explore the role that this character had in the whole Overstock mess.

David Einhorn wants the full, unredacted Inspector General report issued, but that's just a small part of what the SEC needs to do. In addition to finally taking action against Overstock for its in-your-face accounting violations, Kotz needs to thoroughly explore the SEC's conduct toward Overstock, and the dynamics that led to the abortive subpoenas being issued and the Overstock probe dropped.

The SEC needs to shut the revolving door that puts ex-SEC lawyers on the payroll of SEC targets as soon as they leave the employment of the agency. That makes the SEC less of an enforcement agency as it is a kind of training camp for the likes of Brent Baker, who make a fortune after they leave the SEC by working for the people they used to probe.

Byrne has withdrawn himself and his cronies from their usual cyberstalking duties for the past few weeks, because of what I presume are intense negotiations with the SEC over the firm's fate.

It will be interesting to see if the SEC takes a dive--again.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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