Rio Tinto to pay $28 million fine to settle US SEC fraud case

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, agreed to pay a $28 million fine to settle a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit that accused it of fraud in handling a failed investment in a Mozambique coal project.

The settlement disclosed on Friday in Manhattan federal court would end a civil lawsuit filed in October 2017, and requires approval by U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres.

Rio Tinto also agreed not to violate recordkeeping and reporting provisions of federal securities laws, and to retain an independent consultant for two years to ensure it properly accounts for asset writedowns.

Former chief executive Tom Albanese agreed to pay a $50,000 civil fine to settle related SEC claims. Neither he nor Rio Tinto admitted wrongdoing.

Rio Tinto confirmed the settlement but declined additional comment. Albanese’s lawyer James Loonam declined to comment.

Former Rio Tinto chief financial officer Guy Elliott remains a defendant, and his lawyer on Friday asked Torres to dismiss the remaining SEC claims because they could not be proven.

The defendants had been accused of deceiving investors about the value of Rio Tinto Coal Mozambique (RTCM), which the Anglo-Australian company purchased in 2011 for $3.7 billion through a takeover of the former Riversdale Mining.

According to the SEC, Rio Tinto was later able to raise more than $5.5 billion from unsuspecting U.S. fixed-income investors by overvaluing the coal assets, despite an internal assessment that the assets were worth negative $680 million.

The regulator said Albanese intended to mislead investors in 2012 by describing the Moatize Basin, where RTCM was located, as a world-class basin coal deposit and long-term growth opportunity.

Rio Tinto took a more than $3 billion writedown for Mozambique in January 2013. It sold the assets in late 2014 for $50 million.

In a letter to Torres, Elliott’s lawyer Theodore Wells noted that neither of the remaining claims against his client alleges fraud.

“It is virtually unprecedented for the SEC to file with great fanfare fraud claims against an issuer such as Rio Tinto, only to settle for technical, non-fraud reporting and recordkeeping violations,” Wells wrote.

The case is SEC v Rio Tinto Plc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 17-07994.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Rosalba O’Brien)