Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo: Busted?

The SEC launches an "informal" investigation into the propriety of his massive stock dump earlier this year

Published October 17, 2007 10:21PM (EDT)

The Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an "informal investigation" into the $130.6 million dollars worth of stock sold by Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo in the first six months of 2007, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Mozilo's stock sales were supposedly "preset" by his "executive sales plan" -- a scheme designed to protect executives from charges of insider trading, but, report the Journal's Kara Scanell and James R. Hagerty, "earlier this year, the SEC said it is taking a hard look at these plans following an academic study that found that insiders were starting these plans just ahead of big stock drops. The findings suggest some plans may have been abused."

But that isn't half the story, in Mozilo's case. Two weeks, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mozilo had "adjusted" his sales plan multiple times over the last year.

But most executives adopt a plan and stick with it, compensation and securities experts say. Mozilo didn't.

Instead, he shifted course twice in late 2006 and early 2007, according to regulatory filings, amid mounting signs of trouble in the housing and mortgage industries. Mozilo adopted a new trading plan, added a second and then revised it, allowing him to unload hundreds of thousands of additional shares before Countrywide stock went into a tailspin.

"There is clearly no legal prohibition of altering your plan," said David Priebe, a Bay Area attorney who has helped set up more than 50 of such plans for executives. "But the more that you modify or add to your plan over a short period of time, the more risk that someone will call it into question. I would not say that you cannot do it. I would say there is a risk if you do do it."

What kind of risk? How about an SEC investigation, for starters.

I know, I know, an "informal" investigation is hardly proof of guilt. Then again, some might say that any CEO who rakes in $130 million the same year that his company announces plans to lay off 12,000 workers is a criminal, pure and simple, whether or not a court of law can prove that he was dumping stock as fast as he could while watching his industry implode.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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