SEC charges Provident Royalties in $485 million fraud

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Provident Royalties LLC and three founders were charged with securities fraud for allegedly bilking thousands of oil and natural gas investors in a $485 million Ponzi scheme, the Securities and Exchange Commission said on Tuesday.

In a civil case, the SEC alleges that from about September 2006 until January 2009, Texas-based Provident Royalties raised nearly half a billion dollars from at least 7,700 U.S. investors by promising annual returns of over 18 percent and misrepresenting how the funds would be used.

A portion of the proceeds were used for acquisition and development of oil and gas exploration and development activities, but other investor funds were used to pay earlier Provident Royalties investors, the SEC said.

“Investors were told that 86 percent of their funds would be placed in oil and gas investments. That representation was false,” the SEC’s complaint said.

The SEC said a federal court issued an emergency freeze on assets and appointed a receiver to preserve the assets.

The agency took similar steps after accusing Texas financier Allen Stanford in February of running a massive fraud involving certificates of deposit issued by his Antiguan bank.

After filing the charges, which the SEC later characterized as a Ponzi scheme, a court-appointed receiver seized Stanford’s global empire of businesses, castles, yachts and private jets.

Stanford is the second high-profile fraud case to shake public confidence in Wall Street and the U.S. financial regulatory system, after veteran financier Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to a massive Ponzi scheme that could have cost investors as much as $65 billion.

Stanford is now in a Texas jail awaiting trial, now scheduled to get under way in August.

The Stanford and Madoff cases are part of what the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission in June called a wave of “Ponzimonium” that is sweeping the globe.

The three Provident Royalties founders -- Paul Melbye, Brendan Coughlin and Henry Harrison -- were charged with orchestrating the scheme. Provident Royalties LLC, broker- dealer Provident Asset Management LLC, and the 21 entities that offered and sold securities were also named in the lawsuit.

Calls to lawyers for Provident Asset Management and Provident Royalties and for Harrison and Coughlin were not immediately returned.

There is no known lawyer for Melbye.

Securities and Exchange Commission v Provident Royalties, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas, 09-1238.

Reporting by Rachelle Younglai in Washington, Chris Baltimore in Houston; editing by Phil Berlowitz and Andre Grenon