Former Chesapeake CEO McClendon charged with bid-rigging of land leases

Wed Mar 2, 2016 5:47am EST
 
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By Brian Grow and Diane Bartz

ATLANTA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Aubrey McClendon, former chief executive officer of Chesapeake Energy Corp (CHK.N: Quote) and a legend in the U.S. energy industry, was charged on Tuesday with conspiring to rig bids to buy oil and natural gas leases in Oklahoma, the Justice Department said.

The indictment follows a nearly four-year federal antitrust probe that began after a 2012 Reuters investigation found that Chesapeake had discussed with a rival how to suppress land lease prices in Michigan during a shale-drilling boom. Although the Michigan case was subsequently closed, investigators uncovered evidence of alleged bid-rigging in Oklahoma. (reut.rs/1TPxUVy)

In addition to the federal probe, the Michigan attorney general brought criminal charges against Chesapeake, which the company settled in 2015 by agreeing to pay $25 million into a compensation fund for land owners.

The Justice Department indictment paves the way for what may be one of the highest-profile criminal antitrust cases against a well-known U.S. CEO in decades, and could thrust McClendon, a controversial figure whose aggressive leasing tactics are legendary in the energy industry, into the highest-stakes legal battle of a decades-long career.

Oklahoma-based McClendon is a shale drilling evangelist who was once among the highest paid U.S. CEOs. He co-founded Chesapeake with fellow Oklahoma oilman Tom Ward in 1989. In 2013, McClendon stepped down from the helm of Chesapeake amid a liquidity crunch and corporate governance concerns. Ward left Chesapeake in 2006 and founded competitor SandRidge Energy Inc SDOC.PK the same year.

McClendon, who is now with American Energy Partners (AEP), was charged with one count of conspiracy to rig bids, a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Justice Department said.

"The charge that has been filed against me today is wrong and unprecedented," McClendon said in statement. "I have been singled out as the only person in the oil and gas industry in over 110 years since the Sherman Act became law to have been accused of this crime in relation to joint bidding on leasehold."

Chesapeake itself is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, the company said.   Continued...

 
Aubrey McClendon walks through the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner