Feds Probing Potential Insider Trading By Senator Bob Corker

Back in December the topic of insider trading by prominent members of Congress hit new highs when as we reported at the time a "Prominent Tennessee Senator Fails To Disclose Millions In Hedge Fund, Real Estate Investments." The politician in question, Tennessee republican Senator Bob Corker, who according to Roll Call was recently the 23rd richest member of Congress...

... and the company under focus: a Tennessee-based REIT, CBL & Associates.

As a reminder, last November, the Campaign for Accountability (CFA), a D.C. watchdog, called for an SEC and ethics investigation of Corker in connection with his family's trading in shares of CBL & Associates (a REIT based in Tennessee). According to CFA, between 2008 and 2015, Sen. Corker, his wife and daughters made an astonishing 70 trades of stock in the real estate investment giant CBL & Associates Properties – more than triple the number of transactions he made of any other stock. Some of the trades closely preceded company announcements that led to changes in the stock’s price and seemingly resulted in the senator making millions of dollars.

CfA Executive Director Anne Weismann stated, “Sen. Corker’s trades followed a consistent pattern — he bought low and sold high. It beggars belief to suggest these trades – netting the senator and his family millions – were mere coincidences.”

As the Wall Street Journal has reported, Sen. Corker failed to report numerous trades of CBL stock. Federal law requires members of Congress to report stock trades and file reports disclosing their assets. Many of Sen. Corker’s profitable trades were made in advance of his broker, UBS, issuing reports impacting CBL’s trading price.

Sen. Corker then amended his filings to reveal a 2009 purchase of between $1 and $5 million of CBL stock, sold just five months later in 2010 at a 42% profit. Similarly, Sen. Corker made purchases worth between $3 and $15 million in 2010 and, just after his last trade, UBS said it was upgrading its outlook. The stock went up 18%. Shortly thereafter, Sen. Corker began selling; a week later, UBS downgraded the stock and the share price soon declined about 10%.

As the CBA also wrote, "as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Corker has advanced legislation that would financially benefit UBS and CBL." This is what Vanity Fair added to this curious story:

As the complaint—filed with the SEC and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics—details, Corker and CBL go way back. Corker began his career at a company whose primary business was subcontracting for CBL and which is now substantially owned by CBL. CBL executives were Corker’s “first and most generous donors,” as the complaint put it, when Corker filed to run for Congress in 2006.

 

Both directly and indirectly, CBL have given generously to Corker. According to the complaint, CBL’s executives, directors and their spouses rank among the senator’s top campaign donors, contributing $88,706 to his campaign committee and PAC since his 2006 run. Since Corker’s arrival in the Senate, CBL executives have contributed more than $50,000 each to NAREIT and ICSC—which, in turn, were part of a nine-PAC consortium that held a fundraiser for Corker in Washington in 2011. NAREIT and ICSC also donated $15,000 directly to his campaign committee since his arrival in the Senate.

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All these questionable revelations proved too much for the Feds to ignore, and as the WSJ reports overnight, CBL is now under investigation by federal law-enforcement officials for alleged accounting fraud.

As the paper adds, the FBI and the SEC are focusing their examination of CBL & Associates Properties Inc. on whether officials at the Chattanooga, Tenn., company falsified information on financial statements to banks when applying for financing arrangements, the people said. Law-enforcement officials have talked to former CBL employees who allege the company inflated its rental income and its properties’ occupancy rates when reporting those figures to banks, the people said.

More importantly, the focus of the investigation is not just whether CBL cooked its books, but the REIT's cozy relationship with Corker and his dozens of oddly profitable trades involving CBL stock:

The FBI and SEC officials have also separately asked questions about the relationship between the company and Mr. Corker, who is close with senior executives at the firm and has made millions of dollars in profits trading the company’s stock in recent years. Authorities don’t believe that Mr. Corker was involved in the company’s potential accounting issues, but they are interested in learning more about the senator’s trading in CBL’s stock, the people said.

So far, the WSJ reports, "they have found no evidence to suggest that Mr. Corker has committed wrongdoing" and to be sure Corker's camp denies any wrongdoing. Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Corker, decried the “baseless charges against Senator Corker.”

Stephen Lebovitz, president and chief executive of CBL, said in a statement that the company “has not been contacted by the FBI, the SEC or any other regulatory agency regarding any accounting or financial issues.” He said the company has “stringent policies regarding our accounting and financial practices in keeping with applicable laws, rules, and regulations to which we strictly adhere.”

The investigation is being run by the FBI’s Washington field office and SEC staff at its Washington headquarters, which tend to handle higher-profile investigations, as opposed to the agencies’ local offices.

What makes the probe especially grotesque is that Corker is not only a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but also a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee which is directly involved in crafting legislation aimed at regulating entities such as the CBL REIT. He has close personal, business and political ties with several members of the family that founded CBL and runs it. That includes founder Charles Lebovitz and his sons, Stephen Lebovitz and Executive Vice President Michael Lebovitz.

The relationship between Corker and the REIT's owners runs deep. After graduating from college in 1974, Mr. Corker worked for a small company that helped construct buildings for CBL. Corker has a home in the same upscale Chattanooga suburb as three of the Lebovitz family members. “He’s a friend,” Stephen Lebovitz said of Mr. Corker in an interview in November with The Wall Street Journal. “Chattanooga’s not that big a city.” 

Michael Lebovitz served as a vice chairman of Mr. Corker’s initial Senate campaign and records show that CBL executives are major donors to his campaigns.

Perhaps aware that his trades would eventually be probed, in a 2011 article on Corker’s CBL investments, Corker preemptively said that by tracking the company’s stock for many years, he noticed that its shares traded within a range. “I’ve bought it heavily when it is at the low end of that range and then I hold it until there is upward movement, when I sell,” he said in a statement at the time.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of these "rangebound" trades were very profitable.

In one of these purchases, Mr. Corker bought between $1 million and $5 million in CBL shares on Nov. 29, 2011, according to updated financial-disclosure statements that he filed after questions from the Journal. The stock rose nearly 7% the next day and continued to climb. He sold the stock in May 2012 for between $5 million and $25 million after the stock had risen 42%, representing a gain of between $420,000 and $2.1 million, according to a Journal analysis of the trade.

And, just in case Corker's "trading explanation" does not work, Corker's spokesman decided to attack the messenger, casting doubt on the motives of the group that brought attention to his trades.

Ms. Johnson, the Corker spokeswoman, said she believes the questions into Mr. Corker have been prompted by the Campaign for Accountability, a nonpartisan organization that has filed several complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee about Mr. Corker’s financial activity. She said the group is a “politically motivated special-interest group that refuses to disclose its donors. We know that any effort to examine [Mr. Corker’s] actions will result in this smear campaign being discredited.”

 

“I wish we had that much authority,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of the organization. “We don’t have the ability to tell the FBI or SEC what to do.”

Well thank god for that, because if in addition to legal insider trading by members of Congress, these same Congressmen, such as Corker, could also wish away any probe into their trades, then the corruption at the very top would be clear for all to see. As it stands, the FBI and the SEC will actually have to go through Corker's trades one by one. At the end of the day, we must note, even though Corker "does not have the ability to tell the FBI or SEC what to do", we are confident there will be no punishment and at best Corkers will be given the "Mickelson" treatment, in which he has to forfeit a part of his illegal profits with absolutely no consequences whatsoever.