SEC: China-based coal mining company Puda an empty shell, defrauded investors

February 22, 2012

Through stock offerings in the United States, investors poured $115 million into a China-based coal mining company that was actually an empty shell, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Wednesday.

Executives of Puda Coal duped investors by failing to disclose that the company no longer owned the mining operation that had been its only source of revenue, the SEC said. The chairman of the company, Ming Zhao, had transferred that to himself, the agency alleged.

The case reflects broader concerns by regulators about companies based in China but selling stock in the United States.

The SEC said it has revoked the U.S. securities registrations of at least a dozen such companies and is assessing whether to take similar action against another 27.

In September, the agency asked a federal court to enforce a subpoena against Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CPA, a Shanghai-based accounting firm that had audited Longtop Financial Technologies. Longtop, whose main offices are in Hong Kong and China, was under investigation by the SEC for possible fraud, the agency said in a court filing.

A recurring question is how well investors can rely on Chinese companies’ financial reports — and the firms that audit them.

U.S. corporations provide plenty of fodder for the SEC. Many companies based here have cooked their books without a public peep from their auditors.

But regulators have been especially concerned about Chinese companies that tap the U.S. financial markets through a backdoor route known as a reverse merger. By buying small or dormant U.S. companies already listed on the stock markets, they have been able to bypass the ordinary vetting process for companies seeking to sell shares in the United States for the first time.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which regulates auditors of companies traded in the United States, issued an alert about reverse-merger companies in 2010. The board has warned that it is unable to inspect audit firms based in China.

Puda Coal entered the U.S. capital markets through a reverse merger in 2005 and went on to trade on the New York Stock Exchange, the SEC said. The company’s main asset was a 90 percent stake in a Chinese coal mining company called Shanxi Coal. But in 2009, Zhao, Puda’s chairman, “caused” that stake to be transferred to him, the SEC said.

Then, Zhao sold almost half of it to Citic Trust, which is controlled by a state-owned investment firm in China, the SEC said. While Citic was selling interests in Shanxi Coal to Chinese investors, the SEC said, Puda executives were telling U.S. investors that Puda owned 90 percent of it.

The SEC filed fraud charges against Zhao and Liping Zhu, Puda’s former chief executive.

Even as the SEC was investigating, the two continued the fraud, the SEC said. Zhu forged a letter, purportedly from Citic, stating that Citic claimed no ownership of Shanxi Coal, the agency said. An attorney for Zhao provided the letter to the SEC, the SEC said.

As a result of the fraud, hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder wealth has been wiped out, the SEC said.

In August, Puda Coal filed a report with the SEC saying its audit committee had investigated and found that Zhao in 2009 arranged for a 90 percent interest in Shanxi Coal to be transferred to himself.

The SEC said it knew of no defense lawyers representing Zhao or Zhu.

Crocker Coulson, who handles investor relations for Puda Coal in the United States, said the company’s independent directors had no comment on the SEC’s action.

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