Even as venture capitalist Michael Rothenberg’s twisted tale seems to be coming to an end, a coda has begun that leaves it unclear to whether he has actually accepted responsibility for what security regulators have dubbed a “fraudulent scheme.”
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had settled its fraud case with Rothenberg, the self-proclaimed “virtual Gatsby” of Silicon Valley. In a detailed complaint, securities regulators charged that Rothenberg had “misappropriated millions of dollars from the funds, including an estimated $7 million of excess fees, which Rothenberg used to support personal business ventures he claimed were self-funded and to pay for private parties and events at high-end resorts and Bay Area sporting arenas.”
“Venture capital investors provide important funding for startups, but there are risks, including potential harm to investors from unscrupulous managers who defraud them, as we allege Rothenberg did in this case,” said C. Dabney O’Riordan, co-chief of the Enforcement Division’s Asset Management Unit, in a statement.
Rothenberg did not admit or deny guilt in accepting a deal that bars him from the industry for five years. However, he did file a lawsuit against Silicon Valley Bank. According to CNET, the lawsuit claims SVB negligently transferred $4.25 million to the wrong bank account, leading some to believe he had taken investors’ money.
This, according to Rothenberg, triggered a wave of negative publicity that led to some investors cancelling their investments and employees leaving the firm.
It’s not entirely clear how that claim squares with the SEC case. The SEC said the fraud involved $7 million and mainly resulted from Rothenberg taking fees from investors for managing their money in the VC funds and using that to prop up his failing River Studios, a virtual reality content initiative he had created. According to the SEC complaint:
In 2014, Rothenberg moved his investment adviser business to the technology-centric neighborhood of South of Market (also known as SOMA) in San Francisco, California. Rothenberg also used one of his entities to purchase a large three-story commercial building in SOMA. RVMC moved its principal place of business to this location and leased its office space from Rothenberg’s entity. Rothenberg also offered office space to startups that joined River Accelerator. Unfortunately, Rothenberg’s expenditures greatly outpaced that of the River brand’s income. In 2015, RVMC’s finance director began warning Rothenberg that he must cut expenses at RVMC and River Studios.
Rather than heeding that advice, Defendants continued (and in many ways accelerated) their scheme to defraud the Rothenberg Funds and the Co-Fund. Rothenberg misused the money taken from his clients to fund his personal business ventures (primarily by sinking millions into River Studios) and his lifestyle. And all the while, in furtherance of this scheme, Defendants continued to employ various deceptive acts and practices to hide their misappropriation and to create the false appearance that they were legitimate fund expenses or investments.”
In the past, Rothenberg has continued to push back against claims of wrongdoing. And the SVB lawsuit seems to indicate that he’s not going to go away quietly. Whether he can regain the confidence of investors one day, however, will be the real test of whether his time in the Silicon Valley VC ecosystem is closed, or just temporarily derailed.
Meanwhile, the SEC deal must be approved by a federal district court that will also determine how much money he may have to refund and any penalties he must pay. He can reapply after five years to work in the “brokerage and investment advisory business.”