U.S. SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
Litigation Release No. 22902 / January 9, 2014
Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Release No. 3527 / January 9, 2014
Securities and Exchange Commission v. Diamond Foods, Inc., Civil Action No. 3:14-cv-00122 (N.D. Cal.); Securities and Exchange Commission v. Steven Neil Civil Action No. 3:14-cv-00122 (N.D. Cal.)
The Securities and Exchange Commission ("Commission") today filed separate actions against Diamond Foods, Inc. ("Diamond"), a San Francisco-based snack food company, and its former chief executive officer (CEO) Michael Mendes, and its former chief financial officer (CFO) Steven Neil for their roles in an accounting scheme to falsify walnut costs in order to boost earnings and meet estimates by stock analysts.
According to the Commission's complaints against former CFO Steven Neil and Diamond, which were filed in federal court in San Francisco, Neil directed the effort to fraudulently underreport money paid to walnut growers by delaying the recording of payments into later fiscal periods. In internal e-mails, Neil referred to these commodity costs as a "lever" to manage earnings in Diamond's financial statements. By manipulating walnut costs, Diamond correspondingly reported higher net income and inflated earnings to exceed analysts' estimates for fiscal quarters in 2010 and 2011. After Diamond restated its financial results in November 2012 to reflect the true costs of acquiring walnuts, the company's stock price slid to just $17 per share from a high of $90 per share in 2011.
Diamond Foods agreed to pay $5 million to settle the SEC's charges. Former CEO Michael Mendes, who allegedly should have known that Diamond's reported walnut cost was incorrect at the time he certified the company's financial statements, also agreed to settle charges against him. The SEC's litigation continues against Neil.
According to the Commission's complaints filed against Neil and Diamond, one of the company's significant lines of business involves buying walnuts from its growers and selling the walnuts to retailers. With sharp increases in walnut prices in 2010, Diamond encountered a situation where it needed to pay more to its growers in order to maintain longstanding relationships with them. Yet Diamond could not increase the amounts paid to growers for walnuts, which was its largest commodity cost, without also decreasing the net income that Diamond reports to the investing public. And Neil was facing pressure to meet or exceed the earnings estimates of Wall Street stock analysts.
The Commission alleges that while faced with competing demands, Neil orchestrated a scheme to have it both ways. He devised two special payments to please Diamond's walnut growers and bring the total yearly amounts paid to growers closer to market prices, but improperly excluded portions of those payments from year-end financial statements. Instead of correctly recording the costs on Diamond's books, Neil instructed his finance team to consider the payments as advances on crops that had not yet been delivered. By disguising the reality that the payments were related to prior crop deliveries, Diamond was able to manipulate walnut costs in its accounting to hit quarterly targets for earnings per share (EPS) and exceed estimates by analysts. For instance, after adjusting the walnut cost in order to meet an EPS target for the second quarter of 2010, Diamond went on to tout its record of "Twelve Consecutive Quarters of Outperformance" in its reported EPS results during investor presentations.
The Commission further alleges that Neil misled Diamond's independent auditors by giving false and incomplete information to justify the unusual accounting treatment for the payments. Neil personally benefited from the fraud by receiving cash bonuses and other compensation based on Diamond's reported EPS in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
In a separate settled administrative proceeding filed today against former CEO Michael Mendes, the Commission found that Mendes should have known that Diamond's reported walnut cost was incorrect because of information he received at the time, and that he omitted facts in certain representations to Diamond's outside auditors about the special walnut payments. Mendes agreed to pay a $125,000 penalty to settle the charges without admitting or denying the allegations. Mendes already has returned or forfeited more than $4 million in bonuses and other benefits he received during the time of the company's fraudulent financial reporting.
The Commission's complaint against Diamond alleges that Diamond violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 ("Securities Act"), and Sections 10(b), 13(a), 13(b)(2)(A), and 13(b)(2)(B) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 ("Exchange Act") and Exchange Act Rules 10b-5, 12b-20, 13a-1, 13a-11, and 13a-13. Without admitting or denying the allegations, Diamond has consented to the entry of a permanent injunction against future violations of the relevant federal securities laws, and the imposition of a $5 million penalty.
The Commission's complaint against CFO Neil alleges that Neil violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Act, and Sections 10(b) and 13(b)(5) of the Exchange Act and Exchange Act Rules 10b-5, 13a-14, 13b2-1, and 13b2-2, and Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, and aided and abetted Diamond's violations of 13(a), 13(b)(2)(A), and 13(b)(2)(B) of the Exchange Act and Exchange Act Rules 12b-20, 13a-1, 13a-11, and 13a-13. The complaint against Neil seeks a permanent injunction, civil penalties, an officer and director bar, disgorgement plus prejudgment interest, and relief pursuant to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
The cease and desist order against CEO Mendes alleges that he directly violated Sections 17(a)(2) and (a)(3) of the Securities Act, Exchange Act Rules 13a-14, 13b2-1, and 13b2-2, and caused Diamond's violations of Sections 13(a), 13(b)(2)(A), 13(b)(2)(B), and Exchange Act Rules 12b-20, 13a-1, 13a-11, and 13a-13. Without admitting or denying the factual findings, Mendes has consented to the entry of a cease and desist order against committing violations of Sections 17(a)(2) and (a)(3) of the Securities Act, Exchange Act Rules 13a-14, 13b2-1, and 13b2-2, and causing Diamond's violations of Sections 13(a), 13(b)(2)(A), 13(b)(2)(B), and Exchange Act Rules 12b-20, 13a-1, 13a-11, and 13a-13, and the imposition of a $125,000 penalty. The Commission's order against Mendes noted that he already has returned to Diamond or has forfeited over $4 million in bonuses and other benefits he received during the time of the company's fraudulent financial reporting.
The Commission took into account Diamond's cooperation with the SEC's investigation and its remedial efforts once the fraud came to light. The penalties collected from Diamond and Mendes may be distributed to harmed investors if SEC staff determines that a distribution is feasible.