The federal government will announce indictments today of more than 40 people, including the chief executive of a Rockville technology company and three major shareholders, who have been charged with conspiring to artificially inflate stock prices after a two-year sting operation, according to indictments and federal agents close to the investigation.
The indictments, some of which were unsealed yesterday, accuse stockbrokers, lawyers and business executives from around the country of manipulating the stock of at least five publicly held companies through deals with undercover federal agents. The operation, dubbed "Bermuda Short," ended Tuesday with dozens of arrests, according to the agents close to the investigation.
Representatives from the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service will hold a news conference this morning in Miami to discuss the investigation, the agents said.
Among the targets of the investigation was WorldTeq Group International Inc., a Rockville Internet services company. Its chief executive, Bruce Bertman, was arrested Tuesday on charges of wire, mail and securities fraud and conspiracy to commit those crimes after he and others agreed to pay undercover agents $2.5 million to purchase WorldTeq stock at inflated prices, one of the indictments said. Wire- and mail-fraud charges carry a penalty of five years each; each securities-fraud charge carries a penalty of 10 years. The maximum possible penalty if all the charges are upheld against Bertman is 80 years.
Bertman's attorney, Burton W. Wiand, called the indictment "inappropriate" and said his client "is a legitimate businessman who will resolve this in a way that will establish that."
During the sting operation, undercover agents approached company executives, shareholders and stock promoters and offered to exaggerate the market for company stock and inflate its value in return for cash.
Agents posed as representatives of a fictitious foreign mutual fund that controlled millions of dollars, according to the indictments. The agents claimed that the fund managers were corrupt and had approved illicit stock deals.
The agents then targeted small public companies, offering to buy large amounts of overpriced stock in return for kickbacks, according to the indictments.
Bertman and three others -- WorldTeq controlling stockholders Jerry Poole, Charles Arnold and Ray Hutchison -- allegedly agreed to pay $2.5 million to undercover agents in exchange for about 4 million shares of WorldTeq stock. The agents agreed to purchase the stock at $2 a share, even though shares were worth only 30 cents at the time, the indictment says. Stock promoter Cris Sagnelli was charged with wire, mail and securities fraud and conspiracy to commit those crimes, according to the indictment. WorldTeq stock closed yesterday at 10 cents per share, down 6 cents.
The documents charge that Bertman drafted fake documentation, including consulting and stock-purchase agreements, to conceal the kickbacks. The men are accused of wire fraud because of electronic communications between Rockville and Boca Raton, Fla., where federal agents operated.
FBI agents arrested Bertman at his home Tuesday. He was later released but must appear before a federal judge in Miami next week. Bertman referred all questions to his attorney.
A federal agent close to the investigation said the sting operation did not jeopardize the finances of any stockholders because proposed transactions were never completed.
"Nobody lost any money. No investors were hurt in this case because it was all undercover," the agent said.
Many of the indictments remained sealed yesterday and none of the agencies involved in the investigation would disclose the identities of those arrested Tuesday. But WorldTeq issued a short statement announcing Bertman's arrest and the charges filed against him.
Three other companies were named in the unsealed indictments: Medinah Minerals Inc., a Lake Elsinore, Calif., mining company, whose chief executive, Les Price, was indicted on charges of wire and securities fraud and money laundering; COI Solutions Inc., a Las Vegas health insurance provider, whose chief executive, Robert W. Wilder, was charged with wire, mail and securities fraud; and ThermoElastic Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based company that markets acrylic, whose three founders and president, Kenneth B. Liebscher, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire, mail and securities fraud.
According to one indictment, agents also arrested Frank G. Dickey Jr., 59, the son of former University of Kentucky president Frank Dickey and president of Lexington, Ky.-based Equity Technologies and Resources Inc.