China-based Luckin Coffee has agreed to a $180 million penalty as part of a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve charges related to the coffee chain’s inflated-sales scandal.
From at least April 2019 through January 2020, Luckin intentionally fabricated approximately $311 million in retail sales transactions “in an effort to falsely appear to achieve rapid growth and increased profitability and to meet the company’s earnings estimates,” according to the SEC’s complaint, filed Wednesday in the Southern District of New York.
Certain executive officers and senior managers at Luckin attempted to conceal the fraud by inflating the company’s expenses by more than $190 million, creating a fake operations database, and altering accounting and bank records to hide the misconduct from the company’s finance department and others, the complaint states.
The SEC alleges Luckin raised more than $864 million from debt and equity investors during its period of fraud. Once the misconduct was uncovered, Luckin reported the matter to, and cooperated with, SEC staff; initiated an internal investigation, terminated certain personnel (e.g., Co-Founder and CEO Jenny Zhiya Qian and Chief Operating Officer Jian Liu); and added internal accounting controls, the agency said.
“This settlement with the SEC reflects our cooperation and remediation efforts, and enables the Company to continue with the execution of its business strategy,” said Dr. Jinyi Guo, Chairman and CEO of Luckin Coffee, in a statement. “The Company’s Board of Directors and management are committed to a system of strong internal financial controls, and adhering to best practices for compliance and corporate governance.”
The SEC charged Luckin with violating the antifraud, reporting, books and records, and internal control provisions of the federal securities laws. Luckin neither admitted nor denied the allegations.
“Public issuers who access our markets, regardless of where they are located, must not provide false or misleading information to investors,” said Stephanie Avakian, outgoing director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in a press release. “While there are challenges in our ability to effectively hold foreign issuers and their officers and directors accountable to the same extent as U.S. issuers and persons, we will continue to use all our available resources to protect investors when foreign issuers violate the federal securities laws.”
The Luckin scandal was cited frequently during the formation of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, which passed Congress earlier this month and is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump. The bill would force foreign-based companies, like Luckin in China, to submit to oversight by the U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board—a pain point for the accounting regulator for years.
Some question whether the bill will be toothless, though, as it carries a three-year implementation period during which a lot could change.
In September, Luckin and a group of affiliated firms were fined 61 million yuan (U.S. $9 million) by China’s market competition regulator in response to the sales scandal.