UPDATE 3-Insider charges in Disney case raise ABC sale hopes

Wed May 26, 2010 1:26pm EDT

* Duo charged with conspiracy and wire fraud

* One suspect is Disney employee, had company results

* Included tip Disney was in talks to sell ABC network

* Disney shares up over 3 percent (Adds employee shared info on ABC sale, analyst comment, bylines)

By Sue Zeidler and Grant McCool

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK, May 26 (Reuters) - A Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) employee and her boyfriend have been charged with trying to sell insider information to over 30 hedge funds, including a tip that the media and consumer giant was in advanced talks to sell its struggling ABC TV network.

An assistant to the company's head of corporate communications gave confidential information about Disney's quarterly earnings to her boyfriend, who in turn tried to sell it to U.S. and European hedge funds, according to criminal and civil insider trading charges filed on Wednesday.

Bonnie Hoxie and her friend, Yonni Sebbag -- otherwise known as Jonathan Cyrus -- were arrested by FBI agents in Los Angeles, law enforcement officials said.

In a sting operation, undercover agents contacted Sebbag, who in one email said he had learned that the company was in discussions to sell ABC -- which Wall Street had speculated on but the company has never confirmed. [ID:nN10165402]

Shares of Disney were up 3.2 percent to $33.35 in afternoon trading, boosted by the possibility of an ABC sale rather than hurt by the charging of an employee.

"It's a total embarrassment for Disney, but it can happen to any company. But what's far more interesting from the share value perspective is if they are selling ABC," said Alan Gould, an analyst with Soleil Research.

Disney representatives did not return calls for comment.

A statement by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney said that from March 2010 through May 25, 2010, Hoxie was employed as a secretary to Disney's Head of Corporate Communications.

"In this capacity, Hoxie obtained material, nonpublic information, including Disney's quarterly earnings statements.

"Then, in violation of her duties of trust and confidence, Hoxie disclosed the Inside Information to Sebbag, who in turn disclosed the inside information to outside investors for the purpose of trading in advance of the official public announcement of Disney's earnings," the statement said.

THE STING

According to court documents, an undercover FBI agent who identified himself as a hedge fund trader began communicating with Sebbag on March 11. On March 15, Sebbag wrote that Disney's chief executive was in advanced talks to sell ABC.

"Bob Iger is in serious and advanced negotiations with two private equity firms to sell them the ABC network but no price has been determined yet," Sebbag wrote in the email, according to the court document.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed related civil charges. Its complaint said Sebbag was Hoxie's boyfriend. It said they sent anonymous letters to U.S. and European hedge funds, offering pre-release of Disney second quarter 2010 results in exchange for a fee.

The criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court in New York charged Hoxie, 33, and Sebbag, 29, with conspiracy and wire fraud in allegations of illegal insider trading. The charges carry a maximum possible sentence of 20 years imprisonment if they are found guilty.

They are scheduled to make an initial appearance before a judge in Los Angeles later on Wednesday. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Grant McCool in New York; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Edwin Chan)