Feds drop SeaWorld criminal fraud investigation into 'Blackfish' comments

DOJ will not take action against company

ORLANDO, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Justice has notified SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. that the agency is dropping its criminal fraud investigation into the company’s statements about the film “Blackfish”, according to SeaWorld’s latest filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

For more than a year, the DOJ had been investigating whether former SeaWorld executives fraudulently misled investors when they originally claimed the 2013 documentary did not hurt theme park attendance.

"I scratch my head if there's any notable impact from this film at all," former SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer James Atchison told the Wall Street Journal in November 2013 in response to questions about “Blackfish,” a documentary that criticized the company’s practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

In August 2014, SeaWorld officials acknowledged that the documentary was, in fact, having a negative impact on the company’s reputation and revenue.  

Following that announcement, the company’s stock price to plunged more than 33 percent.   It has since recovered. 

In a Form 8-K filed Wednesday with the SEC, SeaWorld indicated that the DOJ would not be filing any criminal charges.

“On December 11, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice informed SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. that it does not intend to take any action against the Company or any individuals in connection with the investigation previously disclosed by the Company concerning disclosures and public statements made by the Company and certain individuals on or before August 2014 and trading in the Company’s securities,” the filing stated.  “The Company considers the DOJ matter concluded.”

In September, SeaWorld agreed to pay $4 million to settle a civil complaint filed by the SEC over similar allegations involving statements about “Blackfish."

Atchison, who resigned from SeaWorld in 2014, paid a $1 million penalty to the SEC, records confirmed.  
A group of shareholders have filed a class action lawsuit against SeaWorld, claiming company executives’ statements about “Blackfish” cost them millions of dollars in losses.  That trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in July.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.