Quebec’s securities watchdog has ended a five-year, multipronged inquiry into what has become known as the Amaya affair without having won sanctions against anyone involved, closing the book on its part in what was one of Canada’s biggest insider-trading cases.
In a letter dated Thursday and sent to lawyers of roughly a dozen people who were subject to freeze and cease-trade orders while the probe continued, the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF) said it would not be pursuing any legal or administrative action against their clients related to what it calls the “Project Bronze” probe. Bronze was the only remaining AMF investigation in the Amaya affair after two others were dropped last year.
“There is no more ongoing investigation related to Amaya. So this is the end of that case,” said AMF spokesman Sylvain Théberge, confirming the information in the letter. “After careful analysis, we have decided that we cannot proceed. This kind of decision, although difficult, is part of our work and is made according to the circumstances and peculiarities of each file.”
At the heart of all the investigations was the question of why so many investors bet on Amaya, a minnow-sized Montreal online gambling company, months before news broke out about its US$4.9-billion takeover of betting giant PokerStars. Trading in Amaya stock was frenzied in the weeks before the deal was announced in June, 2014, amid industry rumours of a tie-up between the companies.
The development means no one linked to the Amaya affair will have any allegations against them tested in Quebec court in a definitive way as the AMF’s examination ends. In Ontario meanwhile, a probe by the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) into the matter continues after the regulator filed a new batch of allegations late last year.
This past February, the OSC closed a second Amaya case after obtaining settlements with three people accused of either insider trading or insider tipping on Amaya shares and dropping allegations against a fourth. All four had ties to Bay Street money manager Aston Hill Financial.
The AMF’s decision to end its probes comes exactly one year after a Quebec judge stayed insider-trading charges against David Baazov, Amaya’s former chief executive, and two other men in the same case six weeks into their trial, saying the AMF showed a “lack of rigour” and “laxism” in prosecuting the file. Mr. Baazov has since launched a $2-million lawsuit against the regulator alleging the AMF was malicious in filing accusations against him.
In March, 2016, Quebec’s securities watchdog charged Mr. Baazov, his childhood friend Benjamin Ahdoot and Yoel Altman, a consultant who advised on Amaya deals, with insider trading and attempting to influence the market price of Amaya stock. As the AMF plowed resources into three separate investigations of Mr. Baazov’s activites and the OSC also looked into possible wrongdoing linked to Amaya, the case became one of Canada’s biggest ever securities files.
Amaya has since changed its name to Stars Group Inc. and moved its head office to Toronto from Montreal. Mr. Baazov is no longer involved with the company.
In the Bronze probe, the AMF had said it uncovered a sophisticated system of insider trading by which kickbacks such as cash and a $13,000 Rolex Daytona watch were paid in exchange for stock tips on several impending takeovers. The deals stretch back years before Amaya took over gambling behemoth PokerStars. The regulator alleged that Mr. Baazov was the main source of the privileged information, which filtered out to several other people in turn.
None of those allegations were proved and no charges were laid in relation to the Bronze investigation.
The AMF’s Mr. Théberge defended the regulator’s enforcement record despite the outcome in the Amaya affair. The AMF remains the provincial regulator with the most lawsuits brought forward and many favourable decisions, he said.
“[This] does not mean that we are fleeing the ball in front of big files,” Mr. Théberge said. “The AMF has had many successes over the last few years in difficult cases, including insider trading.”