Steinhoff International Holdings NV former Chief Executive Officer Markus Jooste has been fined more than 162 million rand ($9.9 million) by a South African regulator for insider trading ahead of the retailer’s near collapse almost three years ago.
Jooste sent a text message to four people warning them to sell their stock in the company in the days before it reported accounting irregularities in December 2017, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority said in a statement Friday. Three of them acted on the advice and have been penalized smaller amounts.
Steinhoff shares went on to lose more than 90% of their value after the then-owner of Pep stores across Africa and Mattress Firm in the U.S. said its auditors wouldn’t sign off on financial statements, leaving the company battling for survival. Jooste quit the same day, and was later accused by the company of being one of eight individuals linked to questionable transactions. He and the company are involved in several probes and lawsuits by investors trying to recoup their losses.
“That’s probably the most expensive SMS sent in South Africa’s history,” said Brandon Topham, the FSCA’s head of investigations. “The moral of the story for the public is even if you don’t trade and you just provide information, you can still be liable for a pretty serious administrative penalty.”
Jooste didn’t immediately respond to a call and message to his mobile phone, though the FSCA said he has denied wrongdoing. The ex-CEO’s lawyer, Callie Albertyn, confirmed Jooste received notification from the regulator on Thursday, and that they are considering their response, including a potential appeal.
Jooste’s texts to friends before the scandal broke were first reported by Bloomberg News in October 2018. He sent them after becoming aware of Steinhoff’s likely implosion on Nov. 30 2017, according to the FSCA. At the time, Steinhoff was in discussions with Deloitte LLP about the viability of its accounts.
The ex-CEO has since kept a low profile, barring one public appearance before South African lawmakers to explain his role in the collapse. He is solely liable for 123 million rand of the fine, though holds joint responsibility for further penalties handed down to beneficiaries of the text messages. He will also be charged for the regulator’s costs and interest.
Under new CEO Louis du Preez, Steinhoff has been battling to survive. The company has renegotiated debt with lenders and sold multiple assets to shore up the balance sheet, but still has to resolve legal action including by its former billionaire Chairman Christo Wiese.
The shares fell 3.7% to 0.05 euros as of 11:12 a.m. in Frankfurt, where Steinhoff has its primary listing.