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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SEC Charges Fraud in Commodity Derivatives Trading at Bank of Montreal

The SEC filed charges in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging that four individuals engaged in a fraudulent scheme to overvalue the commodity derivatives trading portfolio at Bank of Montreal ("BMO") and thereby inflate BMO's publicly reported financial results. The defendants include a former senior derivatives trader at BMO and the top two senior executive officers of Optionable, Inc. ("Optionable"), a publicly traded commodities brokerage firm.

The defendants named in the Commission's complaint are:

David Lee ("Lee") was a natural gas options trader employed by BMO Capital Markets Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of BMO and a registered broker-dealer, until he resigned on May 15, 2007. From 2001 through 2004, Lee was a Vice President of BMO's Commodity Derivatives Group, the unit through which BMO traded commodity derivatives. In 2005, he was promoted to Managing Director of that group.

Kevin P. Cassidy ("Cassidy") was one of Optionable's founders and served as Vice Chairman of Optionable's board of directors until he resigned on May 12, 2007. Except for the period from March 2004 to October 2005, he was also Optionable's CEO throughout the relevant period.

Edward O'Connor ("O'Connor") was one of Optionable's founders and since 2001, he has served as President and a director of Optionable. From March 2004 through October 2005, he was also Optionable's CEO and Treasurer.

Scott Connor ("Connor") was employed by Optionable as a commodities broker until May 2007.

The Commission's complaint specifically alleges as follows:

Lee fraudulently overvalued BMO's portfolio of natural gas options by deliberately "mismarking" trading positions for which market prices were unavailable. Lee recorded inflated values that were then purportedly validated by Optionable, which held itself out to BMO and the public as a legitimate provider of independent derivatives valuation services. In fact, Cassidy, O'Connor and Connor schemed with Lee to have Optionable simply rubber-stamp whatever inflated values Lee recorded. After the scheme was discovered, BMO restated its financial results by reducing net income for the first quarter of its 2007 fiscal year by approximately $237 million Canadian dollars ($204 million USD), which reflects a 68% overstatement of BMO's net income for that quarter.

BMO was Optionable's largest customer, and BMO trades accounted for as much as 60% of Optionable's commodity brokerage business. Lee's trading accounted for virtually all of BMO's business with Optionable. As a result, Optionable's management, led by Cassidy, was willing to do whatever it took to keep Lee satisfied. When market prices were unavailable, BMO's risk management personnel sought to verify the accuracy of BMO's commodity derivatives traders' valuations of their positions, or their "marks," by obtaining supposedly independent valuations, or "quotes," for those positions from one or more third parties. During the relevant period, Optionable was the primary source of the third-party quotes that BMO used to validate Lee's marks. Lee provided his marks directly to Cassidy, O'Connor or Connor, who then simply forwarded Lee's marks, virtually unchanged, to BMO's risk management department as if they were Optionable's independent quotes. At first, Lee used this "u-turn" scheme to boost his trading profits and incentive compensation, but in 2006, the market turned against Lee and he used the scheme to hide substantial trading losses. In May 2007, BMO concluded that due to the Optionable scheme and other positions that Lee had also mismarked, Lee's trading book was overvalued by an aggregate total of $680 million (CAD) since the beginning of BMO's fiscal year ended October 31, 2006.

Cassidy and O'Connor also defrauded Optionable's public shareholders by concealing Optionable's role in the scheme. Optionable's periodic reports touted the synergistic benefits of the derivatives valuation services that Optionable purportedly provided to multiple brokerage clients, but those reports, which Cassidy and O'Connor signed, never disclosed that BMO was the principal client for whom those "services" were performed and that the "valuation services" provided to BMO were a sham designed to defraud BMO. In addition, Cassidy and O'Connor defrauded the New York Mercantile Exchange ("NYMEX") by selling over $10 million of their own Optionable stock to NYMEX in April 2007. Both Cassidy and O'Connor represented to NYMEX that Optionable's periodic reports were materially accurate, but they never disclosed anything about their scheme with Lee to defraud the shareholders of BMO, Optionable's largest customer. On May 9, 2007, one day after BMO announced that it had placed Lee on leave and suspended its business relationship with Optionable, Optionable issued an announcement stating that the suspension would have an adverse effect on Optionable's business. Optionable's stock price fell almost 40% that day, from $4.64 to $2.81 per share, and dropped to below 50 cents per share one week later after Cassidy's prior criminal record was disclosed in press reports.

The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York ("USAO"), the New York County District Attorney's Office ("NYCDA"), and the United States Commodity Futures Trading Commission ("CFTC") also filed parallel criminal and regulatory charges today arising from the same conduct that is alleged in the Commission's complaint. Lee pled guilty to parallel criminal charges filed by the USAO and the NYCDA. In connection with his guilty plea, Lee agreed to pay a total of $4.41 million in forfeiture.

Lee has agreed to settle the SEC charges by consenting, without admitting or denying the SEC's allegations, to the entry of a permanent injunction against future violations of various provisions of the federal securities laws. The Commission's claims for disgorgement and civil penalties against Lee, and all of its claims against the other three defendants, remain pending.

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