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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Tesla faces Department of Justice criminal probe over Elon Musk tweets

Federal prosecutors opened a fraud investigation after Mr Musk tweeted last month that he was contemplating taking Tesla private

Tesla is facing criminal investigation in the US after CEO Elon Musk tweets about potentially taking the company private. Reuters 
Tesla is facing criminal investigation in the US after CEO Elon Musk tweets about potentially taking the company private. Reuters 

Tesla is under investigation by the US Justice Department over public statements made by the company and chief executive Elon Musk. The criminal probe is running alongside a previously reported civil inquiry by securities regulators.

Federal prosecutors opened a fraud investigation after Mr Musk tweeted last month that he was contemplating taking Tesla private and had “funding secured” for the deal, Bloomberg cited unnamed sources as saying. The tweet initially sent the company’s shares higher.

Tesla confirmed it has been contacted by the Justice Department.

“Last month, following Elon’s announcement that he was considering taking the company private, Tesla received a voluntary request for documents from the DOJ and has been cooperative in responding to it,” the company said in a statement released Tuesday following Bloomberg’s report of the investigation. “We have not received a subpoena, a request for testimony, or any other formal process. We respect the DOJ’s desire to get information about this and believe that the matter should be quickly resolved as they review the information they have received.”

The investigation by the US attorney’s office in the Northern District of California follows a subpoena issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking information from the maker of electric cars about Mr Musk’s plans to go private, which he has since abandoned.

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The criminal inquiry is in its early stages. Justice Department probes, like the civil inquiries undertaken by the SEC, can take months. They sometimes end with prosecutors deciding against bringing any charges.

Tesla shares reversed gains and dropped as much as 4.4 per cent to $282.

Abraham Simmons, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in San Francisco, declined to comment.

SEC enforcement attorneys in the San Francisco office were already investigating Tesla before Mr Musk sent his tweet on taking the company private. The existing probe focuses on whether Tesla had issued misleading pronouncements on manufacturing goals and sales targets.

It’s unclear whether the criminal investigation is that broad. Prosecutors in securities-fraud investigations could seek evidence on matters including whether company leaders intentionally lied to investors about the health of the business.

Mr Musk exposed himself to legal risk by tweeting 7 August that he had the funding for a buyout even though that may not have been the case. Almost a week later, Mr Musk said the basis for his statement was conversations with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which first expressed interest in helping take the company private in early 2017.

Tesla’s board then said that it hadn’t received a formal proposal from Mr Musk, who’s also the company’s chairman, nor had it concluded whether going private would be advisable or feasible. Less than three weeks after his initial tweets, Mr Musk abandoned the effort.

Now that Mr Musk’s tweeting has attracted the Justice Department’s attention, investigators there could extend their review to other public statements made by the CEO about the company’s health, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. Authorities could also look into the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Tesla’s chief accounting officer, Dave Morton, after less than a month on the job, the person said.

Mr Morton, a former chief financial officer for computer hard-drive maker Seagate Technology, joined Tesla one day before Mr Musk tweeted that he was considering buying out some investors at $420 a share and taking the company private.