In what could be the biggest threat to Elon Musk’s leadership of Tesla, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has accused the controversial executive of misleading investors with his tweets suggesting he had lined up a deal to take the automaker private.
While Musk tweeted on Aug. 7 that a deal at a substantial premium to Tesla’s then-current stock price was virtually certain — with “funding secured” — he had, in fact, “not even discussed, much less confirmed, key deal terms, including price, with any potential funding source,” the SEC said in a civil fraud complaint filed on Thursday.
According to the SEC, Musk’s should not only be fined for misconduct that caused “significant confusion and disruption in the market for Tesla’s stock and resulting harm to investors” but also “prohibited from serving as an officer or director” of any public company.
“Corporate officers hold positions of trust in our markets and have important responsibilities to shareholders,” Steven Peikin, co-director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, said in a news release. “An officer’s celebrity status or reputation as a technological innovator does not give license to take those responsibilities lightly.”
Analysts were struck by the explicit threat to Musk’s already beleaguered tenure at Tesla, with Bob Lutz, a former General Motors vice chairman and a longtime critic of Tesla, declaring he is “toast.”
Musk “is running out of cash, and he CAN NOT raise capital while under investigation,” Lutz told the Los Angeles Times in an email.
In his first tweet on Aug. 7, the CEO said, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” According to the SEC, his statements created “the false and misleading impression that if Musk chose to take Tesla private at $420 per share, the only outstanding requirement to be satisfied was a shareholder vote.”
Tesla’s board is standing by Musk, saying Thursday it is “fully confident in Elon, his integrity, and his leadership of the company, which has resulted in the most successful U.S. auto company in over a century.”
But the Times said “it was clearer than ever that Musk’s high-wire act could come crashing down.”