Overstock.com Inc. Chief Executive Patrick Byrne has gone in some wacky directions over the past two decades: internet entrepreneur, acid-tongued enemy of short sellers, self-proclaimed blockchain guru.
None of that prepared the world for Byrne’s latest ridiculous role, though: Lothario secret agent at the center of the biggest political scandal in the country.
Byrne issued one of his most bizarre statements yet after the market closed Monday, which is really saying something when it comes to the Overstock CEO. In confirming a story from an independent Fox News contributor and a random interview on Fox Business early Monday, Byrne claimed that in 2015 he “assisted in what are now known as the Clinton investigation and the Russian investigation.”
“In fact,” Byrne said. “I am the notorious ‘missing Chapter 1’ of the Russian investigation.”
Byrne confirmed a personal involvement with Maria Butina, a Russian woman who is currently in jail for failing to register with the U.S. to work as a foreign agent. He said he was romantically involved with Butina, and that he served as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Byrne said he delivered a number of documents to the Department of Justice, including emails and text messages, “regarding the origins of the Russian investigation and an FBI operation into Hillary Clinton, with which he was personally involved during the first months of 2016.”
“I think we are about to see the biggest scandal in American history,” Byrne said in an interview with Stuart Varney on Fox Business. “Everything you think you know about the Russia and Clinton investigations was a lie, it was all political espionage. I think [U.S. Attorney General William Barr] has gotten to the bottom of it.”
While Byrne was spinning about international espionage and conspiracy, his company’s stock took a beating. Overstock shares
plunged 17.6% Tuesday, wiping away temporary gains that it had won after an earnings report last week, despite disclosing a net loss for the 10th consecutive quarter.
To say that Overstock’s shares have been on a roller coaster in the past two years is putting it mildly. At one point in January 2018, they hit a high of around $84 amid the bitcoin frenzy in the markets. The shares gradually sunk back to a low of around $9.50 this June, only to gradually return to around $25 earlier this month.
Byrne’s behavior may serve a purpose: deflecting from the disintegrating business he runs. As an e-commerce company, Overstock has been a money-losing venture and Byrne had been trying to find a buyer for it so he can focus on his cryptocurrency gambit, called tZero, which was the original intent of that Fox Business interview Monday.
Overstock issued a digital token in an attempt to establish what it says is a blockchain trading exchange that will replace the stock-trading infrastructure currently in use. The tZero token offering was originally going to raise as much as $250 million. Last year, Overstock said one investor, Hong Kong’s GSR Capital, signed a deal to invest as much as about $375 million in a combined deal to buy shares in both Overstock and an 18% stake in the tZero trading platform, and raised the investment to $404 million, including plans to buy $30 million in security tokens from Overstock.
By May, that investment deal was sharply reduced to $5 million, and Overstock has so far only seen $2 million of it. Byrne’s big news this week, aside from his international affairs, was that tZero made its security tokens available to non-accredited investors. Last year’s security token offering, which closed in August 2018, raised $134 million from over 1,000 investors.
Since February 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating tZero and its token security offering. In the company’s 10Q filing in May, Overstock disclosed that the SEC had expanded its investigation to include certain public statements made by the company. Overstock said it is cooperating fully with the SEC. In its call last week to discuss earnings, Byrne noted that Overstock has spent about $10 million to $13 million on the investigation so far.
Byrne is among the strangest CEOs in the tech business, but the events this year are beyond what investors should stand for, even from him. Whether he is trying to deflect attention from failed business goals, get the current administration on his side, or is simply a patriotic zealot, it’s impossible to say. But investors might want to take heed, pay more attention to the SEC and be aware that the roller-coaster ride may not be over.