NEW YORK (Reuters) - Late in July 2012, Phil Mickelson, one of the world’s most famous golfers, received a phone call from a well-known professional sports gambler, William “Billy” Walters.
At the time, U.S. authorities say, Mickelson owed Walters a gambling debt, and Walters had a hot stock tip: buy shares in the food company Dean Foods Co.
Four days later, Mickelson owned $2.4 million worth of Dean Foods shares, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A few weeks after that, he reaped a $931,000 profit when the company announced a spinoff that sent its share price soaring. Mickelson then paid off his debt to Walters.
On Thursday, U.S. authorities said Mickelson agreed to turn over more than $1 million in profits and interest as part of an insider trading case brought against Walters and the former CEO of Dean Foods, Thomas Davis.
“Simply put, Mickelson made money that wasn’t his to make,” Andrew Ceresney, the SEC’s enforcement chief, said at a news conference in New York.
Mickelson, 45, was named as a “relief defendant” in the SEC’s civil lawsuit, a term for someone who is not accused of wrongdoing but has received ill-gotten gains as a result of others’ illegal acts.
His lawyers said Mickelson was “an innocent bystander” who “feels vindicated” that he was not charged. One of the lawyers also said Mickelson takes responsibility for “the decisions and associations that led him to becoming part of this investigation.”
It is unclear whether Mickelson benefited from an appellate court ruling in 2014 that limited the ability of authorities to bring insider trading charges against individuals who get inside information second- or third-hand, rather than directly from a corporate insider.
Gregory Morvillo, a New York lawyer who handles insider trading cases, said it was possible the ruling had a “chilling effect” on the SEC’s authority to bring charges against Mickelson.
It remains to be seen whether the allegations will have an impact on Mickelson’s reputation. His lawyer said the golfer appreciated that his corporate sponsors had decided to continue their agreements with him.
Several sponsors, including golf club maker Callaway, did not respond to requests for comment.
But the accounting firm KPMG said, “While we are disappointed by what the SEC announced today, we appreciate that Phil’s statement makes clear he respects and shares the values of KPMG. We accept his statement of personal responsibility and commitment and have nothing further to add.”
Amgen, which uses Mickelson to market its blockbuster arthritis drug Enbrel, said in a statement, “While we can’t comment on the SEC matter involving Phil Mickelson, we have worked with Phil for many years and he has been a passionate advocate for patients with psoriatic arthritis.”
Mickelson, who is ranked 17th on the PGA Tour this year, was known for years as “the best player never to win a major” tournament. But he shed that label with a 2004 victory at the Masters. He has since won two other Masters titles and two other major tournaments.
Nicknamed “Lefty” and “Phil the Thrill,” Mickelson is one of golf’s biggest draws and relishes interacting with fans along the course. While capable of driving up television ratings, Mickelson is also admired for being a committed family man and a generous donor to charities.
The Professional Golfers Association website said Mickelson had career earnings of more than $79 million on the tour, second only to Tiger Woods’ $110 million. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated Mickelson earned more than $40 million a year from appearances and sponsorship deals, which also include Barclays PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp and Rolex.
The SEC said Mickelson had placed bets with Walters both before and after July 2012, when the gambler called Mickelson with his Dean Foods tip.
Walters and Davis, the former Dean Foods CEO, engaged in a years-long scheme to trade in the food company’s stock ahead of major corporate announcements, according to federal authorities. Davis already has pleaded guilty.
The $2.4 million position that Mickelson took in Dean Foods using three brokerage accounts dwarfed his other investment holdings in those accounts, which together amounted to less than $250,000, the SEC said.
The Dean Foods case was brought by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, who amassed a nearly perfect record in dozens of insider trading cases before the 2014 appellate court ruling limited the scope of insider trading laws.
At a press conference, Bharara would not comment on the ruling’s effect on the Dean Foods case but acknowledged it has impacted his ability to prosecute some “nefarious conduct.”
Additional reporting by Nate Raymond and Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Trott