In what is as far as I know the first determination of liability in connection with the recent wave of litigation filed against U.S. listed Chinese companies, a Hong Kong-based arbitration panel has entered an award in favor of an investment unit of C.V. Starr of over $77 million against China MediaExpress Holdings and related persons and entities, based on the panel’s determination that the company was a “fraudulent enterprise.” The panel’s December 19, 2012 award, which can be found here, makes for fascinating reading. (Hat tip to Jan Wolfe, who reported the award and related U.S.-court filings in a January 16, 2013 Am Law Litigation Daily article, here.)
In October 2010, China MediaExpress obtained a U.S. listing through a reverse merger with a U.S. listed publicly traded shell corporation. Prior to the reverse merger, the predecessor entity was owned by Zeng Cheng (“Cheng”) and Ou Wen Lin and Lin’s brother. China MediaExpress allegedly was in the business of providing advertising on inter-city busses. The company’s financial statements showed growing profits and large cash reserves. Starr invested a total of $53.4 million in China MediaExpress in two private transactions in January 2010 and October 2010.
In early 2011, online analysts published reports questioning China MediaExpress’s financial statements. Shortly thereafter, China MediaExpress’s auditor and CFO resigned, as well as members of its board of directors. (Refer here for background.) Trading in China MediaExpress’s shares was halted. Pursuant to provisions in its stock purchase agreements with China MediaExpress, Starr initiated two Hong Kong arbitration proceedings against China MediaExpress, as well as Cheng, the Lin brothers and related entities. Separately, Starr initiated a securities fraud class action against China MediaExpress, its principals and related entities, and the company’s auditor in the District Court of Delaware. (In addition, certain other shareholders separately filed a securities class action lawsuit against China Media Express in the Southern District of New York, about which refer here.)
The arbitration panel, which was chaired by former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Andrew Moore II, heard evidence in the two consolidated arbitrations in May 2012. On December 19, 2012, the panel delivered its Award. A copy of the arbitration award was filed in the District of Delaware lawsuit on January 13, 2013 (refer here).
The 49-page award makes for some fascinating reading. Among other things, the panel concluded that the company was “a fraudulent enterprise that caused Starr to lose the total value of its investment.” Cheng, the panel concluded, has “no credibility whatsoever”. Ou Wen gave the impression on the witness stand that “he would say whatever he thought would advance his case.”
Among many things that troubled the panel was what had happened to the supposedly thriving business that had been represented to Starr. The company attempted to argue that the business had been destroyed by short sellers, a contention the panel described as “ridiculous,” observing that:
To put it bluntly, this claim of Cheng and CME that short sellers destroyed his business is nonsense. It is a fabrication evidently designed to hide the fact that CME never had the business it represented to the world that it had or that, if it did, it has been ravished by dishonest conduct on the part of those who conducted the business. Coupled with the conduct when challenged with the matters raised by [the company’s auditors] and other matters, Cheng’s claim that the short sellers destroyed his business indicates that Starr was correct with it contended that CME was a fraudulent enterprise.
The one specific transaction Cheng offered to explain what happened to all of the cash that the company had reported on its balance sheet was “a land transaction at Shoushan Waterfall.” However, the “evidence concerning this transaction was so implausible and contradictory that it is impossible to accept his claim that any money invested in that transaction was for the benefit of CME and its shareholders even if money of CME was used to finance this transaction.” Overall, the evidence Cheng offered regarding this transaction (which had not been approved by the Board or reported to shareholders and involved a company in which Cheng had an ownership interest) established that Cheng was “in breach of his fiduciary duty.” The evidence concerning the transaction “simply reinforces the conclusion that Cheng was both an unreliable witness and a dishonest businessman.”
As Jonathan Weil said in his January 11, 2013 Bloomberg column about the latest accounting scandal involving a Chinese company, “Chinese stocks may not make for trustworthy investments, but they sure can be entertaining to watch from a distance.”
The arbitration panel’s award represents a devastating judgment against China MediaExpress and its key officials. It remains to be seen how Starr will be able to use this judgment in its separate U.S. securities fraud suit and whether it will be able to collect on the Hong Kong panel’s award. It will also be interesting to see what the claimants in the separate securities class action lawsuit will be able to make of the arbitration award. On the one hand, the panel’s brutally worded conclusions about the company and its principals are damning. On the other hand, the issue preclusive effect of these determinations in separate proceedings involving separate parties and separate evidentiary standards is the kind of thing good lawyers could argue about for a long time.
In any event, whatever the ultimate effect of the arbitration’s panel’s determinations may prove to be, the fact is that, according a statement by Starr’s lawyer quoted in the Am Law Litigation Daily article linked above, the panel’s ruling represents the “first time any of these issues concerning Chinese reverse mergers have been adjudicated.” The implication for other companies involved in these cases – many of which involve allegations even more sensational than were raised here – is ominous.