Former Top Officers Of Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation Plead Guilty In Manhattan Federal Court To Conspiring To Obstruct An Impending Federal Investigation
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that LOUIS TOMASETTA, the founder and former CEO of Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation (“Vitesse”), a publicly-traded company, and EUGENE HOVANEC, the former Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Vitesse, pled guilty in Manhattan federal court to conspiring to destroy, alter, or falsify records relating to Vitesse’s April and October 2001 stock option grants with the intent to obstruct a contemplated investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). TOMASETTA and HOVANEC pled guilty before U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff to a one-count Superseding Information, which was filed today.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “With today’s guilty pleas, Louis Tomasetta and Eugene Hovanec answer as felons for their attempts to use their positions of power to obstruct an investigation they expected the SEC to conduct into their company’s accounting practices. As this case demonstrates, we will not hesitate to reach into corporate board rooms and executives suites to shine a light on corrupt practices.”
According to the Superseding Information, evidence in prior court proceedings, and statements made during today’s guilty plea proceeding:
During 2001 to 2006, Vitesse’s Board of Directors, specifically the Compensation Committee of the Board (the “Compensation Committee”), administered shareholder approved stock options plans (the “Plans”) and had the authority under the Plans to grant stock option awards. Vitesse’s public filings for the 2001 to 2005 year-end period indicated that the exercise price of all stock options was at least equal to the fair market value of Vitesse’s stock price on the date of the grant. During this time period, TOMASETTA, HOVANEC, and others, generally initiated and oversaw the option grant process.
Controversy Concerning the April and October 2001 Option Grants
In November 2005, Yatin Mody (“Mody”), then Vitesse’s Chief Financial Officer, contacted Vitesse’s then-outside law firm (“Law Firm-1”) concerning a press inquiry about Vitesse’s stock option practices. After reviewing documents related to stock option grants in April 2001 and October 2001, Law Firm-1 advised Mody and TOMASETTA that it had concerns about those option grants, and specifically concern about whether Vitesse had properly accounted for these option grants. For example, Vitesse’s April 12, 2001 Compensation Committee meeting minutes memorialized option grants with an exercise price at the April 6, 2001 closing price of Vitesse’s stock, which was lower than the April 12 closing price. These minutes raised a question about whether the options were in fact granted on the day of the meeting (April 12) or on the earlier date (April 6), and potentially affected the accounting treatment of the options in a way that would require adjustments to Vitesse’s financial reports. Similarly, the Compensation Committee meeting minutes from October 25, 2001 memorialized option grants with an exercise price at the October 2, 2001 closing price, which was lower than the October 25 closing price.
In late November 2005, after discussions with TOMASETTA and HOVANEC, Mody created minutes of the Compensation Committee meetings allegedly held on April 6, 2001 and October 2, 2001. Mody then provided copies of these minutes to Law Firm-1, and specifically advised Law Firm-1 that they were prepared in November 2005 to reflect what had actually occurred at those meetings.
Tomasetta and Hovanec Alter and Fabricate Records Regarding the 2001 Option Grants
On March 18, 2006, the Wall Street Journal published an article that raised questions about stock option practices at various companies, including Vitesse. Following the article, Law Firm-1 raised concerns to Vitesse’s directors and management, including TOMASETTA and HOVANEC, about Vitesse’s option grants and specifically, about the fact that Compensation Committee minutes had been created years after the fact. Law Firm-1 informed TOMASETTA and HOVANEC that because of the Wall Street Journal article, there was a significant possibility of an SEC investigation into Vitesse’s option practices and disclosures.
At a meeting on April 11, 2006, Law Firm-1 also advised Vitesse’s directors and management, including TOMASETTA and HOVANEC, that Mody’s after-the-fact creation of Compensation Committee meeting minutes raised questions about whether the meetings had actually occurred. That same day, Vitesse’s Audit Committee retained a law firm (“Law Firm-2”) to conduct an independent investigation into Vitesse’s stock option grants. Law Firm-2 requested that Vitesse provide it with access to the computer used by the Vitesse employee who was responsible for actually typing the minutes of the Compensation Committee meetings when they occurred (the “Assistant’s Computer”).
With an understanding that Law Firm-2 would access the Assistant’s Computer, on April 12, 2006, TOMASETTA, HOVANEC, and Mody created documents that purported to be minutes of meetings of Vitesse’s Compensation Committee on April 6, 2001 and October 2, 2001, authorizing option grants at those meetings. After creating these documents, they transferred electronic copies of the documents containing the two recently created sets of minutes to the Assistant’s Computer and, in an effort to make it appear that the minutes were created at an earlier time, TOMASETTA, HOVANEC, and Mody reset the computer’s internal clock to backdate the creation date of these purported minutes. TOMASETTA and HOVANEC engaged in this action to obstruct Law Firm-2’s internal investigation, knowing that there was likely to be an SEC investigation of Vitesse’s option grant practices and disclosures.
TOMASETTA, 64, Ojai, California, and HOVANEC, 61, Westlake Village, California, each pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to destroy, alter, or falsify records in contemplation of a federal investigation, which carries a maximum term of five years in prison.
Yatin Mody, 50, of Westlake Village, California, pled guilty in December 2010, before U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl, to an Information charging him with securities fraud, making false entries in the financial records of a corporation, and conspiracy pursuant to a cooperation agreement with the Government. He awaits sentencing.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Criminal Investigators of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which jointly investigated this case. He also thanked the SEC for its assistance.
This case was brought in coordination with President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, on which U.S. Attorney Bharara serves as a Co-Chair of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Working Group. The task force was established to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it is the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions and other organizations. Over the past three fiscal years, the Justice Department has filed nearly 10,000 financial fraud cases against nearly 15,000 defendants including more than 2,900 mortgage fraud defendants. For more information on the task force, please visit www.StopFraud.gov.
This case is being handled by the Office’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys John J. O’Donnell, Katherine R. Goldstein and David I. Miller are in charge of the prosecution.