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US SEC sues over alleged bogus bailout of Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit

Published 06/17/2024, 04:27 PM
Updated 06/18/2024, 10:15 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit, with a rocket underneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner, during test launch of its high-altitude launch system for satellites from Mojave, California, U.S. January 17, 2021.  REUTERS/Gene B

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A Texas man was sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday over his alleged fraudulent $200 million offer to rescue billionaire Richard Branson's now-defunct satellite launch services company Virgin Orbit.

The SEC said Matthew Brown falsely portrayed himself, including on CNBC, as an experienced venture capitalist with investments in "over 13 space companies" when he made a bogus offer to buy Virgin Orbit stock on March 19, 2023, as the company teetered near bankruptcy.

According to the SEC, Brown fabricated a screen shot of his company's bank account to show a "current" balance of $182,383,991, though it contained less than $1, and demanded that Virgin Orbit pay a 3% "break-up" fee if his investment did not close.

Virgin Orbit's stock price rose 33% after the offer but fell after it collapsed, according to the complaint filed in the Fort Worth, Texas, federal court. The SEC is seeking a civil fine, a ban on offering securities, and other remedies.

Brown is believed to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the SEC said. His firm, Matthew Brown Cos, is also a defendant.

In a statement on Tuesday, the defendants said the SEC complaint was filled with "egregious errors," "fabrications" and "biased allegations" that favored Virgin Orbit management.

"We are steadfast in our commitment to thoroughly contest these issues, if they arise, through the trial process," the defendants said. "We will not settle until we are vindicated by the rule of law."

Once worth $3.8 billion and counting the U.S. military among its largest customers, Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 protection on April 4, 2023, after struggling to secure long-term funding in the wake of a failed launch three months earlier.

The company had been spun off from Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic in 2017.

Virgin Orbit ended contact with Brown on March 25, 2023, two days after he told CNBC he was in "final discussions" on a rescue, because it found issues with his credibility, three people familiar with the talks said at the time.

In interviews with Reuters in early April 2023, Brown dismissed accusations of deception.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit, with a rocket underneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner, during test launch of its high-altitude launch system for satellites from Mojave, California, U.S. January 17, 2021.  REUTERS/Gene Blevins/File Photo

"I absolutely, 100%, had the money," he said.

The case is SEC v Brown, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas, No. 24-00558.

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