SEC Settles With St. Joe Company And Former Top Execs On Charges Of Improper Accounting Of Real Estate Assets During Financial Crisis
The SEC recently announced the settlement of charges against The St. Joe Company, as well as 5 former officials, including its former CEO and CFO. The charges related to allegations that the Florida-based real estate developer and its top officials failed to properly apply generally accepted accounting practices to St. Joe’s real estate investment holdings. Specifically, St. Joe and its senior executives repeatedly failed to take required write-downs on the value of properties hit hard during the financial crisis. As a result, according to the SEC, St. Joe continuously filed financial statements with the SEC that materially overstated earnings and assets in 2009 and 2010, thereby depriving investors of critical information required to make informed investment decisions.
St. Joe was originally founded as a timber company by an heir to the DuPont chemical-company fortune over 75 years ago. In the 1990s, the company spun-off its forest management and railroad manufacture businesses and, with the help of a former Walt Disney Co. real estate executive as its new CEO, began the rise to power as a Florida real estate development company.
The value of St. Joe’s real estate holdings, and the company’s share price, fell drastically between 2006 and 2011 as a result of the housing downturn. During this time, David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital – which held a significant and notorious short position in St. Joe’s stock – was an outspoken critic of St. Joe’s company finances and the purported value of its land holdings. Ultimately the SEC, acting upon similar concerns, instituted its action against the company and top officials.
St. Joe and the 5 executives neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings but consented to the entry of the settlement order, which found that they violated or caused the violation of, among other provisions, the negligence-based antifraud provisions, and the books-and-records, reporting, and internal controls provisions, of the federal securities laws. As a result, in addition to St. Joe’s $2.75 million settlement, the combined penalties agreed to be paid by the executives totals $335,000. They also agreed to pay $640,000 in disgorgement, plus prejudgment interest. Four of the former executives also agreed to be suspended from appearing and practicing before the SEC as an accountant for a number of years.
The SEC has indicated that its investigation into this matter continues.