The Justice Department on Tuesday charged Charlie Javice, the founder of college-aid firm Frank, with wire fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.
JPMorgan Chase bought Frank in September 2021 but shut down the platform in January, after suing Javice and a second Frank executive, Olivier Amar, alleging they vastly exaggerated the business’s customer base and created fake student accounts to back up those claims.
Javice was released on a $2 million bond after appearing before a magistrate judge Tuesday, Bloomberg reported.
Javice surrendered her U.S. and French passports — she is a dual citizen — and her travel is limited to New York City and South Florida, according to an agreement with prosecutors. She’ll have to observe a curfew and isn’t permitted contact with witnesses or with current JPMorgan or former Frank employees, according to Bloomberg.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, additionally, charged Javice with fraud, alleging she misrepresented Frank’s user base — a figure she said was 4.25 million but later was found to number roughly 300,000 — in an attempt to entice JPMorgan into a deal worth $175 million, as a competitor bank was also allegedly pursuing the startup.
"Charlie denies the allegations," a spokesperson for her attorney, Alex Spiro, told CNBC. Spiro had no additional comments, the spokesperson said.
JPMorgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the network.
Prosecutors claim that, during discussions with JPMorgan, Javice asked Frank’s director of engineering to create “an artificial, synthetic data set” from the company’s actual data set.
“I don’t want to do anything illegal,” the engineer said, according to Tuesday’s court filing, seen by Bloomberg and the Financial Times.
Javice replied: “We don’t want to end up in orange jumpsuits,” according to the complaint.
When the engineer refused, Javice and Amar hired a data science professor at a New York-area college to create the accounts, JPMorgan said in its December suit.
The bank has said it realized something was wrong after it sent marketing materials to users on the larger list but found that 28% were delivered and 1.1% were opened.
Javice, for her part, sued JPMorgan last year, alleging the bank launched an internal investigation of the Frank deal, then fired her in November to get out of paying her a $20 million retention bonus. She also filed a counterclaim in February, saying it was "implausible" that JPMorgan "was led to believe Frank had 4.25 million registered users when its website publicly claimed the company had helped more than 350,000 people access financial aid,” CNBC reported.
The DOJ complaint included a slide titled the “Frank Thesis,” taken from a company presentation meant to draw potential investors or acquirers. On the slide, the company called itself an “acquisition machine” that knows “more about our students than any lender, college or employer,” The New York Times reported.
“Javice … lied directly to JPMC and fabricated data to support those lies — all in order to make over $45 million from the sale of her company,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Tuesday. “This arrest should warn entrepreneurs who lie to advance their businesses that their lies will catch up to them, and this Office will hold them accountable for putting their greed above the law.”
Amar is not named as a defendant in the DOJ or SEC complaints. In an attempt to dismiss JPMorgan’s lawsuit against him, he said he wasn’t a party to the merger agreement and attended no more than one meeting with the bank ahead of the deal, Bloomberg reported.
The SEC, meanwhile, is seeking civil penalties against Javice and wants to permanently prohibit her from serving as an officer or director of a public company. Javice received $9.7 million in stock proceeds, and millions more through trusts, the regulator said, citing an internal investigation.
"Rather than help students … Javice engaged in an old school fraud: she lied about Frank’s success in helping millions of students navigate the college financial aid process by making up data to support her claims, and then used that fake information to induce JPMC to enter into a $175 million transaction," said Gurbir S. Grewal, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. "Even non-public, early-stage companies must be truthful in their representations, and when they fall short we will hold them accountable as in this case."