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DETROIT — Fiat Chrysler is paying $40 million to settle with U.S. securities regulators who say the automaker misled investors by overstating its monthly sales numbers over a five-year period.
The Italian-American company inflated sales by paying dealers to report fake numbers from 2012 to 2016, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleged in a complaint.
Fiat Chrysler agreed to pay the civil penalty and to stop violating anti-fraud, reporting and internal accounting control regulations, the SEC said Sept. 27 in a statement. The automaker did not admit or deny the agency’s allegations, the statement said.
“This case underscores the need for companies to truthfully disclose their key performance indicators,” Antonia Chion, associate director in the SEC’s Enforcement Division, said in the statement. She noted that the new vehicle sales figures give investors insight into the demand for an automaker’s products, a key to assessing the company’s performance.
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Fiat Chrysler said it has reviewed and refined its sales reporting procedures. It said the payment will not have a large impact on its financial statements.
The agency said the automaker boasted about a streak of year-over-year sales increases into 2016, when the streak actually was broken in September 2013.
When the company disclosed the sales scheme in 2016, it said that it had a “reserve” stock of cars that had been shipped to big fleet buyers such as rental car companies but not recorded as sales.
The SEC said employees called this database of actual but unreported sales the “cookie jar.” The company dipped into those sales to stop the streak from ending, or when it would have missed other sales targets.
Fiat Chrysler said it now records sales as soon as vehicles are shipped to customers. It has also taken steps to ensure that a sale is immediately subtracted from its books when it finds out the deal was scuttled because the buyer backed out or couldn’t get financing.
The SEC probe is another in a long string of legal troubles for Fiat Chrysler. It also faces federal investigations into illegal payments to union officials through a training center, and a criminal probe into allegations that its diesel-powered trucks were programmed to cheat on emissions tests. The company has denied cheating, but federal prosecutors charged an engineer earlier this week and said he conspired with others.
In June, Fiat Chrysler’s U.S. sales chief sued the company alleging that it withheld 90% of his pay package because he testified in the SEC’s inquiry into its sales reporting.
Reid Bigland alleged that Fiat Chrysler violated Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act, retaliating against him because of his testimony.
Bigland, who is still with the company, alleged in his lawsuit said that he inherited the sales reporting system when he took over the top sales job in 2011. When a dealer sued the company over the reporting system in 2016, Fiat Chrysler reported problems to the SEC, according to the documents.
The company, in its motion to transfer the case to federal courts, tried to cast doubt on Bigland’s whistleblower claims. It said Bigland acknowledges that Fiat Chrysler reported the problems itself and that he didn’t testify voluntarily before the commission.