SEC Charges Three Former Bank Executives in Virginia for Understating Loan Losses During Financial Crisis

Press Release

SEC Charges Three Former Bank Executives in Virginia for Understating Loan Losses During Financial Crisis

 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
2013-4
Washington, D.C., Jan. 9, 2013

The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged three former executives at Norfolk, Va.-based Bank of the Commonwealth for understating millions of dollars in losses and masking the true health of the bank’s loan portfolio at the height of the financial crisis.

The SEC alleges that Edward J. Woodard, who was CEO, president, and chairman of the board, was responsible along with CFO Cynthia A. Sabol and executive vice president Stephen G. Fields for misrepresentations to investors by the bank’s parent company Commonwealth Bankshares. The consistent message in Commonwealth’s public statements and SEC filings was that its portfolio of loans — which comprised approximately 94 percent of the company’s total assets in 2008 — was conservatively managed according to strict underwriting standards aimed at keeping the bank’s reserved losses low during a time of unprecedented economic turmoil.

In reality, the SEC alleges that internal practice deviated significantly from what the public was being told. Woodard knew the true state of Commonwealth’s rapidly-deteriorating loan portfolio, yet he worked to hide the problems and engineer the misleading public statements, particularly those made in earnings releases. Sabol knew of the activity to mask the problems with the company’s loan portfolio and the corresponding effect these masking practices had on the bank’s financial statements and disclosures, yet she signed the disclosures and certified to the investing public that they were accurate. Fields oversaw the bank’s largest portfolio of construction and development loans and was involved in the masking practices.

“During times of financial stress, it’s more important than ever for executives to make full and honest disclosure to the investing public,” said Scott W. Friestad, Associate Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Commonwealth’s executives did the opposite and hid the company’s worsening performance from shareholders through masking practices that understated the losses on its most troubled loans.”

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Commonwealth understated its allowance for loan and lease losses (known as ALLL) by approximately 17 to 25 percent from November 2008 to August 2010. This caused the bank to understate its reported loss before income taxes by approximately 64 percent for fiscal year 2008. Commonwealth also understated its losses on real estate repossessed by the bank (known as OREO) in two fiscal quarters, which caused the bank to understate its reported loss before income. For eight consecutive fiscal quarters, Commonwealth underreported its total non-performing loans.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that Commonwealth obtained an appraisal for its largest collateral-dependent loan that falsely inflated the value of the collateral. The bank executed hundreds of “change-in-terms agreements” at the end of the quarter to remove tens of millions of dollars of loans from its reported non-performing loans. Woodard, Sabol, and Fields helped enable the bank to artificially bring otherwise-delinquent loans current by permitting checking accounts associated with the guarantors of the delinquent loans to be overdrawn. The bank also disbursed loan proceeds without inspecting the property to confirm that the work requiring the disbursement had actually been performed.

The SEC’s complaint charges Woodard, Sabol, and Fields with violations of the antifraud, reporting, recordkeeping, internal controls, deceit of auditors, and Sarbanes-Oxley certification provisions of the federal securities laws.

The SEC’s investigation, which is continuing, has been conducted by Laura B. Josephs, Thomas D. Silverstein, David S. Karp, Lucas R. Moskowitz, and David Estabrook. The SEC’s litigation will be led by Richard Hong. The SEC appreciates the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Bureau of Financial Institutions of the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

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