British multi-billionaire Joe Lewis – principal owner of Tavistock Group, the developer and owner of several elite golf courses in Florida and the Bahamas – pled guilty Wednesday to charges of a securities fraud scheme in federal court in Manhattan.
Prosecutors had charged Lewis, 86, with sharing insider information about the dealings of companies in which he was a large investor. Those who benefitted from the illegal information sharing included personal acquaintances such as romantic partners, assistants, friends and his pilots, according to an original filing by the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. The beneficiaries of the non-public information sharing reaped millions of dollars in gains, according to the filing.
Tavistock Group developed several notable golf properties, including Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Orlando and the nearby Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. Many notable golf professionals live at these Central Florida properties, and past residents include Tiger Woods – it was at Isleworth where Woods in 2009 famously crashed into a fire hydrant, landing him in a nearby emergency room.
The company operated the Tavistock Cup from 2004 to 2013, with PGA Tour and LPGA stars from the company’s courses competing in a team event. Besides Isleworth and Lake Nona, that event grew to include the company’s Albany property in the Bahamas and several other clubs not developed by Tavistock.
In all, the Bahamas-based holding company has investments in more than 200 companies, including the soccer club Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. Tavistock Group reports on its website that it’s focused primarily on real estate, hospitality, agriculture and financial services.
After initially denying any wrongdoing six months ago, Lewis pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, which carries a maximum potential sentence of five years in prison, and two counts of securities fraud, which each carry a maximum potential sentence of 20 years in prison. His acceptance of a plea deal will shorten his potential time behind bars.
As part of the plea deal, Lewis and his company Broad Bay Ltd. will pay $50 million in financial penalties. Lewis also faces federal sentencing guidelines of 18-24 months in prison, but the judge can reduce that sentence. A sentencing date has not been selected. Lewis also must relinquish any board seats he held in publicly traded companies in the U.S.
“I knew that I was violating a legal duty not to make those recommendations because the nonpublic information had been entrusted to me in confidence,” he said according to an Associated Press report. “I knew at the time what I was doing was wrong, and I am so embarrassed and I apologize to the court for my conduct.”
Prosecutors wrote that in addition to the insider trading, Broad Bay Ltd. and other corporate entities under the direction and control of Lewis engaged in a scheme to hide his ownership and control shares of a pharmaceutical company through a pattern of false filings and misleading statements.
“Today’s guilty pleas once again confirm – as I said in announcing the charges against Joseph Lewis just six months ago – the law applies to everyone, no matter who you are or how much wealth you have,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. “Billionaire Lewis abused inside information he gained through his access to corporate boardrooms to tip off his friends, employees and romantic interests. Now, he will pay the price with a federal conviction, the prospect of time in prison and the largest financial penalty for insider trading in a decade.”