In July 1993 two brothers, David and Tom Gardner, and a friend, Erik Rydholm, founded a private investment advisory firm in Alexandria, Virginia. They named that firm Motley Fool after the court jester in “As You Like It,” a play written by William Shakespeare (it is believed in 1599). The Motley Fool, or Touchstone as he is known in the play, was the only character who could speak the truth to Duke Frederick without having his head cut off. Similarly, Motley Fool, the advisory firm, sought to give investors accurate advice, even if it flew in the face of received wisdom. For example, in advance of April Fool’s Day 1994, Motley Fool issued a series of online messages promoting a non-existent sewage-disposal company. The April Fool’s Day prank was intended to teach investors a lesson about penny stock companies. The messages gained widespread attention including an article in The Wall Street Journal.
Over time Motley Fool grew into a worldwide subscription stock recommendation service. It now releases new recommendations every Thursday, and subscribers receive them through computer interfaces provided by Motley Fool. The terms of service in a Motley Fool subscription agreement (in the words of the May 3, 2022 Complaint brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission [“SEC”] in the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York) “expressly prohibit unauthorized access to its systems.” David Lee Stone of Nampa, Idaho (southwest of Boise), is a 36-year-old computer design and repair person with a degree in computer science. Since June 2021, he and his wife have lived periodically in Romania, a fact cited in the Complaint, suggesting, perhaps, some involvement with Romania-based computer hackers. In any event, Stone is alleged in the Complaint to have used deceptive means beginning in November 2020 to obtain pre-release access to upcoming Motley Fool stock picks. Using that information, Stone and a co-defendant made aggressive investments, typically in options, which generated more than $12 million in gains. Stone, his codefendant, and his family and friends all benefited financially from knowing in advance the Motley Fool picks.
The SEC seeks injunctions against Stone and his co-defendant, as well as disgorgement with interest and civil penalties, for violating the antifraud provisions of federal law. The Commission also seeks disgorgement with interest from the family and friends. In addition, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has filed criminal charges against Stone.
This case is in many ways reminiscent of the 1985 federal prosecution by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (who happened to be Rudolph Giuliani at the time) of R. Foster Winans. Winans was, from 1982 to 1984, the co-author of “Heard on the Street,” a column in The Wall Street Journal. Winans leaked advance word of what would be in his column to a stockbroker who then invested with the benefit of that information, sharing some of the profits with Winans. Winans argued that his actions were unethical, but not criminal. He was found guilty of insider trading and wire fraud and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court rulings.
Attempting to profit on market sensitive information can be both a civil and a criminal offense. The SEC Enforcement Division and the relevant U.S. Attorney are prepared to introduce a perpetrator to those consequences.
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