Three months after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush resigned from the board of Rayonier Inc., the Florida timber conglomerate disclosed for the first time that it was facing a law enforcement investigation. Now a watchdog group says the probe may be far more serious than the company has acknowledged.
The Securities and Exchange Commission investigation revolves around Rayonier’s amended financial statements from 2014 -- precisely when Bush was serving on the Rayonier board’s audit committee. As International Business Times reported, Bush was appointed to Rayonier’s board after his administration delivered $100 million to the company for land and logging rights. That included one deal that Florida auditors later said had relied on “questionable assumptions” that “may have led to misleading and overstated value conclusions.”
In a new report, the investor watchdog group Probes Reporter notes that Rayonier’s own corporate filings show the firm knew about the SEC investigation before Bush left the board in December 2014, but it did not disclose the investigation until well after he resigned. When it did disclose the probe, Rayonier said “the company does not currently believe that the investigation will have a material impact on the Company’s results of operations, cash flows or financial condition.” But the Probes Reporter report says of the investigation that “despite company reassurances to the contrary, we do know it’s a material” exposure for shareholders.
“I don't know how a public company can argue with a straight face that a formal SEC investigation is not material,” Probes Reporter's John Gavin told IBT.
The group says that because subpoenas have been issued, “we also know it’s a formal probe, though the company never says that.” And according to Probes Reporter, the investigation may have intensified.
The fact that the company "sat on the SEC probe, keeping it from investors for four months, told you something changed to cause them to believe it had to be disclosed," Probes Reporter asserts. In a late August letter rejecting the group’s request for documents about the probe, the SEC confirmed that there are “ongoing enforcement proceedings” in the case.
While there is no evidence Bush or other board members are involved in the investigation, accounting practices were a key concern when Bush served on Rayonier’s board. As IBT reported, in the former Florida governor’s first year working with the company, Rayonier lobbied the SEC to block an accounting regulation designed to compel corporations to more accurately report the value of their property.
A Bush campaign spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, told IBT that the SEC has not contacted Bush in connection with its investigation. Previously, she said that Bush is "proud of his service on Rayonier's board."