The day after the release of Tesla’s Q1 vehicle delivery and production report, CEO Elon Musk headed to a Manhattan courthouse to face the charges leveled against him by the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC accused Musk of violating the terms of his settlement with the agency when the CEO tweeted on February 19 that Tesla will produce around 500k vehicles in 2019, echoing one of his statements from the Q4 2018 earnings call.
Musk arrived in the courthouse on Thursday in light spirits. Smiling to cameras, the Tesla CEO told reporters that he respects the American justice system. “I have great respect for the justice system and I think the judges in the American system are outstanding,” Musk said. When prompted by veteran CNBC reporter Phil LeBeau if he feels the same way about the SEC, Musk laughed and walked forward.
The SEC’s arguments
The courtroom was packed as Elon Musk and the SEC’s legal team faced off before U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan. Each side is given 45 minutes to express their arguments. The agency went first, represented by SEC attorney Cheryl Crumpton, who immediately claimed that Musk “recklessly tweeted out information that has no basis in fact (credit to Matt Robinson of Bloomberg, who is currently conducting a Live Blog of the hearing).”
Explaining further, Crumpton stated that the requirement that Musk get pre-approval for his tweets was “the heart of the relief” that the government had sought as part of its settlement. The SEC lawyer also noted it has become pretty clear “over the course of the last few weeks” that Musk does not intend to comply with last year’s settlement terms. Crumpton added that the agreement does not require every single tweet to be pre-approved, provided that the information in the posts was immaterial. “The communication we are talking about here is very, very different,” she said.
The SEC lawyer also pointed the blame to Tesla, who allegedly is failing to control the conduct of its CEO. “Tesla’s conduct is also troubling to the SEC. This court ordered Tesla to implement a mandatory pre-approval process, but they are apparently fine with Mr. Musk making up his own procedure. Tesla still seems unwilling to exercise any meaningful control over the conduct of its CEO,” Crumpton replied.
Judge Nathan, for her part, asked the SEC lawyer if Musk would need to get approval for tweets that reiterated information that had already been disclosed. The judge went through different hypotheticals with the SEC lawyer, such as repeating earlier guidance. “We’re not saying always yes or always no to that. It depends is the answer,” Crumpton said.
“This is a material statement no matter how you cut it, and it was a violation to not get it pre-approved,” Crumpton added.
For his alleged violations of his settlement, the SEC lawyer called on the court to give Musk a series of escalating fines if he continues to violate the order. Crumpton also stated that the SEC wants the court to order Musk to report monthly on his compliance with the settlement. “We want the court to tell them that this has to observed in the way that it’s written,” the SEC lawyer said.
Response from Tesla’s legal team
With the SEC having completed its argument, it was time for Elon Musk’s legal team to argue their points. Tesla lawyer John Hueston stated that “it’s very clear that Mr. Musk retained discretion in the policy. The policy makes clear that the tweet is subject to a fact-based determination by Mr. Musk.” The Tesla lawyer also stated that Musk’s decision to decide what’s material information was negotiated. “That’s exactly what Tesla negotiated for and got,” Hueston said.
The Tesla lawyer also argued that the SEC is currently pretending to be shocked that Musk gets to decide what is material information and what is not, but that is exactly what the the order says. “They agreed to take out language saying that everything has to be approved. There has to be an oversight process and there is an oversight process. They’re not happy about that today,” he said.
Musk’s legal team stated there is not a clear enough standard to use the harsh recourse of contempt. Instead, Hueston stated that the SEC should have attempted to work things out with Elon Musk and Tesla before bringing the matter to court. “What the SEC should have done was approach in good faith and try to work things out,” the Tesla lawyer said. In response, Judge Nathan noted that her intent is “not only to invite it but to order it.” The judge also added that she will tell the parties to create a new agreement that incorporates the SEC’s concerns.
Addressing Musk’ counsel, Judge Nathan inquired about a scenario in which the CEO will be violating the terms of his settlement with the SEC. When the Tesla lawyer noted that he couldn’t think of one, the judge replied “You’re not very imaginative.”
Continuing his points, Hueston noted that the 15 post-order tweets that were cited by SEC as proof of Musk’s violation of his settlement shows that the agency believes “that, apparently, contempt can fall on him for things that he’s tweeting” even if the information had already been disclosed. “They have not shown that the proof of non-compliance is clear and convincing. This is not someone who’s wantonly saying he doesn’t care about processes and procedures. That’s someone who is trying his best to comply and has been diligent,” the Tesla lawyer said (credit to Bloomberg‘s Chris Dolmetsch for the update).
The SEC’s Rebuttal
The SEC lawyer returned stating that the agency did not rush into its request to have Musk held in contempt at all. “Its not that we rushed into court on the first opportunity. There have been a number of tweets over time.” Crumpton further added that the SEC assumed Musk will comply with the terms of his settlement despite his statements in 60 Minutes, where he explicitly commented that he does not respect the SEC.
Following the SEC’s rebuttal, Judge Nathan asserted that compliance with court orders is not optional, nor is it a game, regardless of whether you are a “small potato or a big fish.” She also noted that government lawyers must take all steps necessary to reach a resolution before invoking contempt, before adding that she has “serious concerns that whatever I decide here the issue will not be finally resolved.”
Judge Nathan ordered the two parties to arrange a meeting and send a letter to the court within two weeks. The parties will be required to indicate if they have reached an agreement or not. If no agreement is reached then, Elon Musk’s legal team and the SEC will hear from her in due course.
The hearing was adjourned after. In a statement following the hearing, Musk stated that he was “very impressed with Judge Nathan’s analysis.”