Cool Mara Riot, Part Two: Securities-fraud case against South Florida group reverberates through additional companies

By Chris Carey

Jim McNair and Kevin O’Connor contributed to this report

When financier Barry C. Honig was waging a proxy fight for control of the company that became Riot Blockchain Inc. (Nasdaq: RIOT), he demanded that it return excess capital to shareholders through a special dividend.

But once Honig and his allies took over, they did exactly the opposite. The Colorado-based company, then known as Bioptix Inc., raised an additional $7 million last spring through two private placements. Honig, his business partners and other associates bought nearly all of the stock, warrants and convertible notes sold in those deals, which were priced at a 30 percent discount to the market.

By the second week of October, they had turned those securities into 4.7 million common shares. That stock, combined with earlier purchases, gave them nearly two-thirds of the company, on a fully diluted basis.

Only then did Riot Blockchain pay the special dividend, distributing $1 per share or share equivalent, or a little less than $10 million. And in the six weeks that followed, the company’s stock price nearly tripled, as deals with two bitcoin-related businesses in which Honig and his associates had undisclosed stakes attracted investors who were seeking cryptocurrency plays. When Riot Blockchain’s stock hit $24 on the day after Thanksgiving, the shares issued through the April placement were worth more than $100 million.

A Securities and Exchange Commission filing from April shows that Honig sold nearly all of his Riot Blockchain shares in October and November, collecting more than $17 million. He failed to promptly report those sales, as required under SEC rules for non-passive investors who own 5 percent or more of a company’s stock.

Our investigation found that three Honig associates – his brother, Jonathan Honig, and longtime partners Mark E. Groussman and John R. Stetson – likely sold more than $20 million of Riot Blockchain stock from October to January. Its shares peaked at $46.20 in December, then came crashing back to earth. They now trade for less than $4. The company is dangerously low on cash and the SEC is conducting a formal investigation.

Riot Blockchain stock sales chart

As Sharesleuth reported in July, it appears that the group’s activities at Riot Blockchain, PolarityTE Inc. (Nasdaq: PTE, formerly Nasdaq: COOL) and Marathon Patent Group Inc. (Nasdaq; MARA) were part of a broader web of questionable dealings.

On Sept. 7, the SEC brought fraud charges against Barry Honig, Groussman, Stetson and 17 others individuals and entities, including John R. O’Rourke III, another longtime associate who was chairman and chief executive of Riot Blockchain.

The SEC alleged that the defendants participated in so-called “pump and dump” schemes at three other companies:

– BioZone Pharmaceuticals Inc., now Cocrystal Pharma Inc. (Nasdaq: COCP)

MGT Capital Investments Inc. (OTC: MGTI)

Mabvax Therapeutics Holdings Inc. (OTC: MBVX)

According to the SEC’s complaint, those schemes generated more than $27 million.

Stetson was, until Sept. 7, executive vice president and chief investment officer of PolarityTE, a Utah-based biotech company whose predecessor was headed by Honig.  Our investigation found that the Honig group’s actions at PolarityTE and before that, Majesco Entertainment Inc., mirrored their moves at Riot Blockchain, right down to private placement-and-special dividend maneuver.

The SEC also brought charges against Dr. Phillip Frost, the billionaire chairman and chief executive of Opko Health Inc. (Nasdaq: OPK), and against Opko itself. It alleged that Frost and Opko were part of an undisclosed “control group” at BioZone and Mabvax, and that they either participated in the group’s wrongful activities or aided and abetted them.

Our analysis of SEC filings showed that Honig and Frost sold more than $20 million of their PolarityTE stock between February 2017 and February 2018, with most of those sales coming in the second half of last year.

Once again, Honig failed to promptly report his sales, as required under SEC rules.

Continue reading

Pretenders and Ghosts: Stealth promotion network exploits financial sites to tout stocks

By Chris Carey

Kevin O’Connor, Jim McNair and Russell Carrollo contributed to this report

 

Meet George Ronan.  Again and again and again.

The George Ronan who talked up a succession of small public companies at SeekingAlpha.com described himself as a university lecturer in the United Kingdom with an interest in technology stocks.

George Ronan I

The George Ronan whose articles appear on MarketExclusive.com – as well as Gurufocus.com — is billed as an author, journalist and public speaker who focuses mainly on health care stocks.

George Ronan II

A third George Ronan, with no bio but a decidedly different headshot, was briefly among the contributors to Benzinga.com.

George Ronan IIIAll three are fictitious. A Sharesleuth investigation found that they are part of a small army of writers, both real and imaginary, who have systematically posted hundreds of bullish analysis pieces about the same small companies across numerous investment sites.

Just as certain individuals and organizations circulated false or misleading political stories in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election, internet-savvy promoters are using fake writers, planted articles and even illusory “news” sites to surreptitiously tout stocks. The purported analysis pieces by the multiple George Ronans are a prime example. Sharesleuth turned up more than 140 articles with that byline, on seven different sites.

Most of the original Ronan’s 11 articles at Seeking Alpha called attention to companies that were created or bankrolled by Barry C. Honig, a South Florida financier who figures into at least two Securities and Exchange Commission investigations. So did six of the seven Ronan articles on four other sites, including Investing.com and Trefis.com.

RONAN AS ROADMAP

Using the Ronan stories as markers, we found more than 60 other writers who have systematically promoted companies connected to Honig and his associates, including longtime business partner Michael H. Brauser and billionaire entrepreneur Dr. Phillip Frost, chairman and chief executive of Opko Health Inc. (Nasdaq: OPK).

Sharesleuth determined that the majority of those writers also were fake — part of an elaborate, long-running effort to spark interest in obscure public companies by creating bullish stories that were posted and reposted across the internet.

The stealth promotion network includes a handful of real people who have touted the same stocks with such regularity that it is impossible to view their posts as a coincidence. All told, we turned up nearly 600 bullish articles about Honig-related companies that fit the pattern of stealth promotional pieces.

Continue reading