The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission won a freeze on the assets of John Babikian, a Bugatti-driving man originally from Montreal, who regulators say operated a “pump-and-dump” scheme using penny-stock Web sites.
Babikian put out an e-mail list called AwesomePennyStocks to tout a coal company’s stock while dumping his own shares, the SEC said in a March lawsuit.
AwesomePennyStocks’ messages about that firm and 38 others, sent over five years, helped fuel spikes in share prices that boosted the combined value of the stocks by as much as $3 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The SEC said March 13 it was freezing Babikian’s assets, including two homes and proceeds from the sale of a partial interest in a plane. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty in Manhattan granted a preliminary order sought by regulators.
Bulk e-mails have long-since supplanted the boiler rooms of the 1990s as the most effective way to hype shares of little-known companies. The value of a prescription-drug distributor that AwesomePennyStocks promoted in 2012 ballooned by more than $700 million within two months. After the messages stopped, the shares collapsed.
Babikian owned a Bugatti Veyron -- the cars cost more than $1 million and take 2.5 seconds to hit 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) an hour -- as well as a Bentley and Lamborghini, according to documents from Revenue Quebec, the province’s tax authority. It obtained a judgment allowing seizure of some of his assets last year, after he left the country, relating to its claim that he owed C$4.6 million ($4.1 million) in unpaid taxes.
While promoting stocks is legal -- Wall Street’s biggest banks send reports daily advising investors on what to buy, often in companies that are clients -- U.S. securities law prohibits market manipulation.
The SEC began its latest crackdown on penny-stock fraud in 2010 and had sued 40 individuals and 24 companies as of August, according to its website. In July, the agency formed a microcap- fraud task force.
The case is Securities and Exchange Commission v. Babikian, 14-cv-01740, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).