At the start of June, Chris Faulkner, Chief Executive Officer of Breitling Energy, was a high-flying shale company executive and media darling, often interviewed on CNN, Fox Business News and even the BBC. During his most recent appearance on CNN on June 2nd, he weighed in on the financial prospects for drillers who survive low oil prices despite the spate of bankruptcies sweeping the shale industry.
It was hardly the first time the Texas oilman aired his views on the national stage. “The era of coal is coming to an end,” Mr. Faulkner told The New York Times in June 2014. “We are entering the era of natural gas.”
“Instead of rejecting promising new energy-extraction techniques, citizens should work with responsible energy companies to preserve the benefits of fracking, while stamping out current abuses,” he said in the Wall Street Journal in August of the same year.
“I believe that strict compliance to current regulations is sufficient to protect the aquifer while allowing American companies to tap into rich U.S. reserves and free the nation from its dependence on foreign sources of energy,” he wrote in the U.S. News and World Report in 2011.
But behind the scenes, Mr. Faulkner's world — which according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission amounted to little more than a house of cards — was already beginning to collapse by the time he made his June CNN appearance.
In September, Breitling Energy had been forced to tell investors that its auditors had concluded that some of its prior financial statements “should not be relied upon”. By April, Breitling could no longer keep up with its drilling obligations and had lost expensive drilling rights covering roughly 3,600 acres in Texas, the SEC says. And by May, federal investigators were closing in.
On the last Friday in June, the authorities made their move. Mr. Faulkner and seven others at Breitling Energy Corp. and three additional related companies were charged with what the SEC says was a massive financial fraud that bilked investors out of $80 million. Trading of shares of Breitling was suspended, but not before the stock plunged to just two cents a share.
Mr. Faulkner, 39, had personally used at least $30 million worth of investor money for his own “lifestyle of decadence and debauchery,” according to the SEC lawsuit, including not only jewelry, fashionable clothing and fine dining, but also the frequent use of escort services.
“The financing for Faulkner’s opulent lifestyle came directly at the expense of unwitting investors across the country,” Shamoil Shipchandler, Regional Director of the SEC's Fort Worth Regional office, said in a statement when the charges were announced.
The lawsuit, which labeled the fraud “long-lasting and egregious,” carries only civil penalties, according to Mr. Faulkner's attorney.
The accused Breitling executives include not only Mr. Faulkner, but much of its former top management, its attorney Jeremy Wagers, and Joseph Simo, who prepared reserves estimates for Breitling's oil wells. The companies named by the SEC were Breitling Energy Corp, Breitling Oil & Gas Corp., Crude Energy LLC and Patriot Energy Inc.
They stand accused of a long-running effort to swindle hundreds of investors out of their money by offering false statements about drilling costs, how much oil their wells could produce and even Mr. Faulkner's personal background, including a masters degree and doctorate he claimed but never earned.
Reserves estimates that investors were told came from by a third-party firm were actually written by a one-man shop run by a Breitling-affiliated exec, the SEC said.
At times, Mr. Faulkner took the exaggerated reserves estimates prepared by that firm and arbitrarily inflated them even further, making the company's wells look far more productive than they would actually be, the SEC charged. Other times, the execs sold interests in wells that they didn't actually own, the SEC added.
“In addition, while in the middle of perpetrating this fraud on investors, Faulkner engaged in a scheme to manipulate the price of BECC’s stock, with the assistance of former BECC employee Gilbert Steedley, by placing trades at the end of the day to “mark the close” of the stock,” the agency added in a press release.
There are scam artists to be found in any industry, especially during a boom. But what makes Mr. Faulkner unusual is his prominence as a spokesperson for one of the nation's most powerful industries despite the relatively small size of his company, which has said it had purchased stakes in several hundred wells and directly drilled a small handful.
Nonetheless, as early as 2013, the outspoken Mr. Faulkner was already being labeled “the next darling spokesperson” for the gas industry after Aubrey McClendon's financial misdeeds had led to his removal from the top seat at Chesapeake Energy, then the nation's second-largest natural gas producer.
And he wasn't shy about promoting fracking, even spelling it with the “k” usually omitted by most shale reps. Mr. Faulkner dubbed himself the “Frack Master,” a nickname picked up by CNN and other news outlets.
“Records from the United States Patent and Trademark Office show the company has sought to trademark the names 'Frack Master,' 'Frackmaster' and 'Frackman,'” the Texas Observer, which last April published a massive investigation into Mr. Faulkner, reported. “In one trademark application, Breitling seeks exclusive use of 'Frackmaster' for uses including video games, comic books and 'positionable toy figures.'”
The Texas Observer exposed Mr. Faulkner's role as a heavy-hitting political donor in the state. “His $100,000 contribution to the campaign of Railroad Commission candidate Ryan Sitton made him Sitton’s biggest individual donor,” the Observer reported, referring to the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry in the state.
And he made connections at the national level too. “The Breitling website shows photos of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) at the company’s offices. Faulkner also held a reception last year for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio),” the Observer added.
In the media, Mr. Faulkner aggressively promoted the shale gas industry. Powering America, Mr. Faulkner's 45-minute a week podcast, was broadcast by CBS radio in Texas among others. He's the author of a book, “The Fracking Truth—America’s Energy Revolution: The Inside, Untold Story ” and once stopped by a Chicago high school to speak to an AP class that adopted the book as course material. His feature-length documentary, “Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution” premiered at an oil conference in 2014 and can be streamed on Amazon.com and purchased on iTunes.
But while Mr. Faulkner toured the world, speaking before conferences and legislatures from Asia to the UK, he was running up astonishing bills, with the tab paid by investors who thought they had purchased shares of oil and gas wells, the SEC says. According to the lawsuit:
Faulkner used this card – which he referred to as his 'whore card' – to charge more than $1 million for personal travel, expenses for various personal escorts , gentlemen’s clubs, nightclubs, and associated expenditures. Wagers used his card predominantly for gentlemen’s club expenses, including nearly $40,000 in charges at a Dallas gentlemen’s club over a four day period in July 2014. Faulkner requested that Handkins pay these credit card charges using company funds. She complied, meaning that virtually every dollar of payment on the 'whore card' and for Wagers’ salacious expenses was made using investor funds. … In 2013 alone, Faulkner and Relief Defendant Tamra Freedman, Faulkner’s wife at the time, charged approximately $7 million on Amex cards Faulkner used.
Mr. Faulkner's lawyer, Larry Friedman, denied that the SEC's allegations were true. But he also told the Dallas Morning News that lavish expenses for entertaining potential investors are common in the industry.
“That's just the cost of doing business,” Friedman told the paper.
In 2014, the oil and mining sector topped the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)'s list of the world's most corrupt industries, based largely on the frequency of international bribery charges against miners and drillers.
The natural gas industry has repeatedly produced exceptionally high-profile con men.
Back in 1992, Kenneth Lay, the founder of the now-infamous Enron — the company that went from being valued at $70 billion at its peak to worthless and bankrupt in 2001, at the time the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history — was among the first to label natural gas a “bridge” fuel, or a substitute for coal on the way to building up renewable energy infrastructure. Mr. Lay was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges over Enron's collapse and died while awaiting sentencing.
More recently, Chesapeake Energy removed its CEO Aubrey McClendon following a powerful Reuters investigation that revealed a string of financial misdeeds and undisclosed transactions by McClendon. Mr. McClendon died in a fiery car-crash when his CNG-powered vehicle struck a highway overpass the day after he was indicted by the Department of Justice for breaking federal antitrust laws.
Mr. Faulkner stands accused of defrauding investors out of much smaller sums than Mr. Lay or Mr. McClendon, though the SEC put the damage done at $80 million. And unlike McClendon or Lay, the SEC has not sought criminal penalties over Mr. Faulkner's alleged misdeeds.
Instead, the agency's new lawsuit requests civil fines and court orders, including one barring Mr. Faulkner from participating in the penny stock market.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Gross, via Flickr, Creative Commons