Diamond Foods to pay $5 million to settle SEC fraud case

(Reuters) - San Francisco-based snack food company Diamond Foods Inc will pay $5 million to settle civil charges that the company and two former top executives mislead investors, lying about walnut costs to boost earnings, U.S. regulators said Thursday.

A Diamond Food's Pop Secret microwave popcorn box is seen illustrated in New York, November 8, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that the company’s former Chief Financial Officer, Steven Neil, spearheaded a scheme to under report how much money the company paid Walnut growers by pushing the recording of the payments into later fiscal periods.

This manipulative practice allowed the company to report higher net income and beat analysts’ expectations for fiscal quarters in 2010 and 2011, the SEC said.

The accounting scheme led Diamond to restate its financial results in 2012, the agency added. After the restatement, the company’s stock price fell to $17 per share from a high of $90 a share in 2011.

The SEC said that former Chief Executive Officer Michael Mendes, as head of the company, should have known the walnut pricing was wrong when he certified the company’s artificially inflated financial statements.

In addition to settling with the company, the SEC said Mendes also agreed to pay a $125,000 penalty to settle the case.

Both the company and Mendes settled without admitting or denying the charges.

In addition to paying the penalty, Mendes has also already forfeited more than $4 million in bonuses and other benefits, the SEC added.

Neil denies any wrongdoing and plans to fight the SEC’s charges at trial.

“Steve Neil didn’t do anything wrong,” his attorney, Michael Shepard of Hogan Lovells LLP, told Reuters.

“He followed long-standing company processes and an accounting treatment that was approved by the company’s outside auditor.

“The charges are not based on the facts, but on an effort to turn a disagreement about accounting into a hunt for a villain,” he added.

An attorney for Mendes said he was pleased to have the matter behind him.

An attorney for the company could not be immediately reached.

The SEC’s investigation into Diamond predates the tenure of the agency’s current Chair, Mary Jo White, who became the head of the SEC in the spring of 2013.

However, the charges come at a time when the SEC is starting to ramp up its focus on investigating accounting fraud cases again.

Accounting fraud was a hot area for the SEC in the early 2000s following a rash of scandals at companies such as Enron and Worldcom.

In recent years, accounting fell off the radar somewhat as the SEC turned its attention to bringing cases against banks for their role in the financial crisis, and to insider-trading by hedge funds.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch. Editing by Andre Grenon