Mickelson cooperating with FBI on insider trading probe

Phil Mickelson

Credit: Getty Images

Phil Mickelson hits his second shot on the first hole during the third round of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance at Muirfield Village Golf Club on May 31, 2014 in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

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by ELIZABETH WEISE and KEVIN McCOY

USA TODAY

Posted on May 31, 2014 at 9:02 AM

Updated Saturday, May 31 at 7:17 PM

Pro golfer Phil Mickelson says he's cooperating with a federal investigation into possible insider trading involving billionaire investor Carl Icahn and Las Vegas gambler William "Billy" Walters.

In a statement early Saturday and after playing in a tournament in Dublin, Ohio, Mickelson said he was fully cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"And I'm happy to do so in the future, too, until this gets resolved," he said in the clubhouse at Muirfield Village.

Investigators from the FBI and SEC are probing whether Mickelson and Walters illegally traded on nonpublic information they allegedly obtained from Icahn about his investments in public companies.

The furor over the possible link to much-beloved "everyman" golfer Mickelson began when the Wall Street Journal published a story on its website late Friday. The story linked the information to "people briefed on the probe."

SEC spokesman John Nester declined to comment Saturday.

Experts caution that insider trading probes are notoriously difficult to prove and that it's far too early to know if the federal investigation of trades by Icahn, Mickelson and Walters are in any way linked.

"It's all circumstantial evidence," said Wendy Patrick, an attorney and professor of business ethics at San Diego State University. "Is it a case of 'Where there's smoke, there's fire?' or is this a case where it's just a coincidence?"

The Journal story said the probe had begun after Icahn accumulated a 9.1% stake in Clorox in February 2011.

However no link was made to either Mickelson or Walters' to Clorox stock. The story said only "well-timed trading around the time" of the Icahn bid "caught the attention of investigators."

Mickelson played Saturday in The Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance.

He told reporters the investigation didn't distract him from his game until Thursday after his first round, when two FBI agents approached him near the clubhouse at Muirfield Village's locker room .

He told them to speak to his attorney.

On Saturday, Mickelson said in a statement "I have done absolutely nothing wrong. I have cooperated with the government in this investigation and will continue to do so. I wish I could fully discuss this matter, but under the current circumstances it's just not possible."

What may have drawn investigators to Clorox was the movement of the company's stock and call options around activity by Icahn.

Call options allow an investor to buy shares at a set price by a specific date. Such transactions generally represent an investment bet that a company's stock will rise in value.

On July 15, 2011, Icahn offered to buy Clorox for $76.50 a share in a cash deal valued at an estimated $10.2 billion, according to an SEC filing. Clorox shares rose $6.12 that day and closed at $74.55.

But financial speculation swirled around Clorox four days earlier, when more than 16,000 call options changed hands. The most active were nearly 4,600 July call options at $70 that were due to expire the day Icahn announced the takeover effort. The volume represented a months-long high.

Icahn raised the proposed takeover price several times, ultimately offering $80 a share for Clorox on July 20. He also submitted a Jefferies Group letter indicating a proposal to raise $7.8 billion in financing for the deal.

He withdrew the Clorox offer and a proposed slate of directors on Sept. 23, announcing in an SEC filing that "a considerable base of shareholders" would not agree to support a takeover "at this time."

The Journal did make a direct link to trading patterns of Walters and Mickelson relating to Dean Foods Co., a Dallas-based food and beverage company that specializes in dairy products.

However nothing is known of those trades. Icahn says he has never traded in Dean Foods.

Dean spokesman Jamaison Schuler said Saturday the company had no comment.

A call to the company Saturday was not immediately returned.

Moving money doesn't necessarily mean insider trading, said Patrick. "Lots of people trade at lots of different time. You can't jump to conclusions."

The probe is getting more attention than it might "because of the celebrity factor," she said. "Mickelson is someone that everybody's heard of. When you talk about a household name, everybody all of the sudden gets very interested."

It's important to remember that no one has been charged with anything at this point, Patrick said.

"The fact that somebody or something is being investigated doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be charged."

Contributing: Steve DiMeglio in Dublin, Ohio.


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