Two audit firms — De Joya Griffith and M&K CPAS — and seven auditors have agreed to pay $318,000 to settle charges they were deficient in auditing the financial statements of purported mining companies that were part of a microcap fraud scheme.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said the firms were hired by Canadian attorney and stock promoter John Briner, who allegedly orchestrated the fraud. The regulator announced the charges in January.
In settlements announced Friday, Nevada-based De Joya Griffith agreed to an order suspending it from SEC practice for at least five years and to pay nearly $60,000 in disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and penalties. The sanctions against Houston-based M&K are a 12-month ban from accepting new public audit clients and $103,000 in disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and penalties.
Additionally, De Joya Griffith partners Arthur De Joya, Jason Griffith, and Philip Zhang agreed to pay civil penalties totaling $55,000 and M&K partners Matt Manis, Jon Ridenour, and Ben Ortego agreed to pay a total of $85,000. The largest single penalty ($50,000) was against Ortego.
“The sanctions against these auditors reflect the gravity of the misconduct and betrayal of the trust placed in them by the investing public to serve as gatekeepers in protecting the integrity of our markets,” Sanjay Wadhwa, senior associate director for enforcement in the SEC’s New York regional office, said in a news release.
Briner’s alleged scheme involved creating 20 shell companies that were supposedly exploring mining activities. In late 2011, the SEC said, he contacted De Joya and M&K to audit the mining companies’ financial statements.
“The audits that these firms conducted were so deficient that they amounted to no audits at all,” the SEC said in its enforcement action. “The De Joya and M&K partners also ignored red flags with respect to the issuers.”
The SEC alleged the mining stocks were ripe for “pump-and-dump” schemes when it suspended their registration statements in February 2014.
Briner, who had previously been suspended from practicing on behalf of entities regulated by the SEC, agreed to pay $21,820.94 in disgorgement and prejudgment interest and $50,000 in civil penalties.