SEC charges China Natural Gas, chairman with fraud

(Reuters) - A China-based natural gas company and its chairman were charged with fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for concealing loans designed to benefit the chairman’s family.

Qinan Ji, the chairman and former chief executive of China Natural Gas Inc, in January 2010 arranged for two improper loans totaling $14.3 million, and then lied about them to the company’s board, investors and auditors, the SEC said on Monday.

China Natural Gas did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

The SEC has for more than a year probed accounting irregularities and other problems at Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. Accounting issues have led to the resignations of many of these companies’ auditors, and prompted the exchanges to delist or halt trading of the companies’ shares.

According to the SEC, Ji concealed a $9.9 million loan made through a sham borrower to a real estate firm, Demaoxing Real Estate Co, owned by his son and nephew.

It said Ji also concealed a $4.4 million loan to Shaanxi Juntai Housing Purchase Co, a business partner of Demaoxing and whose general manager was Ji’s friend.

The SEC said Ji told China Natural Gas directors that the loans involved senior Chinese government officers in charge of a liquid natural gas project, and “repeated this lie” to investors on a May 10, 2010, quarterly earnings conference call.

It also said China Natural Gas did not properly report a $19.6 million acquisition made in the fourth quarter of 2008.

“Ji betrayed China Natural Gas investors,” said John McCoy, associate director of the SEC’s Los Angeles office. “Ji’s misconduct caused China Natural Gas to file a series of false reports with the SEC and showed total disregard for his obligations as an officer and director of a company whose stock trades in the U.S.”

The SEC has brought at least seven cases against U.S.-listed Chinese companies, including Longtop Financial Technologies Ltd and Puda Coal Inc.

Last week it filed administrative proceedings against Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CPA Ltd of Shanghai for refusing to provide audit work papers related to a Chinese company being investigated for accounting fraud.

The China Natural Gas lawsuit seeks civil fines and a ban on Ji from acting as an officer and director of a public company.

In September, China Natural Gas announced Ji’s resignation as chief executive, and said it would restate some financial results because of the loans.

The case is SEC v. China Natural Gas et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Gary Hill and Steve Orlofsky