Michael Liberty, the embattled founder of Austin fintech startup Mozido, has been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly tricking investors into pouring money into his shell companies instead of Mozido.
The SEC alleges that Liberty worked with his wife, attorney, cousin and his cousin’s friend to convince people to invest in unregistered shell companies that they said had transferrable interest in Mozido. The SEC says those business entities couldn’t transfer interest in Mozido.
In total, the SEC alleges the group stole around $48 million from investors. With that, the SEC says they funded an extravagant lifestyle with private jet flights, fancy cars, multi-million dollar homes and movie production ventures.
“As alleged in our complaint, these investments were sold as a chance to get in early with a seemingly promising fintech company,” Paul Levenson, director of the SEC’s Boston Regional Office, said in a news release. “The prospect of investing in a non-public start-up company may hold considerable allure, but buyers need to understand what they are buying. Unscrupulous operators make it difficult for ordinary investors to assess such ‘investment opportunities.’”
An attorney at Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia issued a statement on Liberty’s behalf, indicating Liberty will fight the charges and deny most of the allegations.
“We anticipate the day when Mr. Liberty’s name is cleared,” the statement said. “The SEC has unfairly targeted him with regard to this investigation for over six years.”
Liberty founded Mozido in Dallas in 2008 before moving to Austin in 2012. It was once one of Austin’s most promising and most funded startups, with more than $300 million in venture capital and a valuation north of $5 billion. But questions about the startup’s progress began surfacing in 2016 in a Forbes article.
Last year, Liberty was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $100,000 for federal campaign finance violations. Mozido has distanced itself from Liberty, who no longer works there or sits on its board — although he remains a substancial shareholder.
The SEC’s new charges are the latest in a string of problems for Mozido. Last year, Forbes reported that Mozido CEO Todd Bradley had quietly left the company — as did its CFO, Scott Ellyson. Forbes also reported Mozido took a $70 million loan last year to make delayed payroll payments.
Its investors have included Wellington Management, MasterCard, Tiger Management Corporation and H.R.H. Sheikh Nahyan of UAE.