DOJ seeks more time for SeaWorld criminal investigation

Former CEO, spokesman among witnesses authorities may question

ORLANDO, Fla. – Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice informed a federal judge Monday that they need at least two more months to conduct a criminal fraud investigation into SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., court records show.

The DOJ is seeking to extend a temporary stay in a class-action lawsuit filed against SeaWorld by a group of investors.  The shareholders claim company executives misled them about the impact the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" was having on theme park attendance in the months after the film debuted.

In a motion filed late Monday, DOJ attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Michael Anello to prohibit the parties in the lawsuit from conducting depositions of seven current and former SeaWorld employees including former Chief Executive Officer James Atchison and former Vice President of Communications Fred Jacobs. Read internal SeaWorld emails here.

Indicating that "the taking of a limited number of these depositions may implicate and negatively affect the ongoing criminal investigation," the DOJ is requesting that civil attorneys be prohibited from interviewing the seven witnesses until June 1.

Judge Anello did not immediately rule on the DOJ's request and instead asked the government attorneys to provide him with a confidential update on the status of their criminal investigation.

In addition to Atchison and Jacobs, the DOJ seeks to temporarily prohibit the depositions of former Chief Operating Officer Daniel Brown, former Chief Financial Officer James Heaney, current CFO Marc Swanson, Vice President of Financial Planning and Analysis Joshua Powers and Market Research Director Kelly Repass.

In August, the DOJ confirmed its fraud investigation into SeaWorld in a motion seeking to intervene in the shareholder lawsuit.

Federal investigators originally sought a three-month stay in the civil case.  The postponement of depositions was later extended five more months through Monday.

SeaWorld officials have previously denied any wrongdoing and said they are cooperating with federal investigators.

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