Aubrey McClendon might have physically vacated his C-Suite office at Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE:CHK) in early 2013 when he retired from the company. However, his ties to the company have never been fully severed as his previous actions continue to haunt the company, which have kept its legal team busy. That's evident by recent news that the company was suing its founder and former CEO after he allegedly stole confidential data during his last months at the company and used it to give his new company a jump start.
The saga continues
According to a report by Reuters, Chesapeake Energy filed a suit this week against McClendon. He is accused of misappropriating "highly sensitive trade secrets from Chesapeake," and then "using these trade secrets for the benefit of" American Energy Partners LP, which he founded right after retiring from Chesapeake.
The suit claims that McClendon asked his assistant to print maps and data about unleased acreage that Chesapeake Energy was evaluating in the Utica Shale formation to potentially acquire drilling rights on this land. Further, he's accused of sending himself blind copies of these same documents to a personal email address right before he left the company, which it says was uncovered through a forensic analysis of his Chesapeake email account.
Chesapeake alleges that McClendon used this information to acquire drilling rights on behalf of American Energy Partners in four separate deals in the Utica Shale formation. However, McClendon argues that the lawsuit is baseless as his severance agreement with the company included "the right to own and use this information." That's because he has a unique agreement with the company whereby he's allowed to invest each of the wells the company drills.
The company is seeking damages for these alleged violations of the Oklahoma Uniform Trade Secrets Act. It's also asking for "all income earned from their Utica Shale play acquisitions" to be placed in a trust, as the company contends this income rightfully belongs to Chesapeake and not McClendon's new company. Suffice it to say, both the company and its CEO are in for quite a battle.
Still cleaning up the past
Aubrey McClendon certainly left an interesting legacy at Chesapeake. He built the company out of nothing, starting with an initial investment of $50,000, and turned it into America's second largest natural gas company. However, that growth came at a cost, as he used a lot of debt to build that energy empire. He also used some less than ideal means to grow, and those questionable methods have continued to haunt Chesapeake Energy to this day.
Among the legacy issues he left Chesapeake to deal with is alleged collusion in Michigan with EnCana Corporation (NYSE:ECA) in order to suppress land prices for leases for a prospective oil and gas play in the state. The issue dates back to 2010, when an oil and gas leasing boom hit the state's Collingwood Shale area. Bidding pushed leases up to $3,000 per acre, but those prices collapsed shortly thereafter. The two were pursuing a joint venture in the play, and emails between them have surfaced in which they discussed ways to avoid "bidding each other up," but that collaboration never happened since natural gas prices collapsed, making drilling in the play uneconomical. That being said, the company is still dealing with the fallout from this issue.
On top of that, the company is dealing with a number of legal issues regarding royalty payments to landowners. Chesapeake is facing several lawsuits across the country that suggest the company underpaid royalties by using improper deductions. In fact, the company recently paid out $119 million to royalty owners in Oklahoma under a preliminary settlement to resolve claims dating back more than a decade.
It will likely have more settlements to announce in the future, as Chesapeake was known for being aggressive in charging landowners "post-production costs" for transporting oil and gas from the wellhead to pipelines. One case in Pennsylvania, which was documented by The Wall Street Journal, found that the company deducted 37% of the royalty payment to pay for these post-production expenses, one of the well's other owners deducted 13%, and the third owner didn't deduct anything. This aggressive accounting, so to speak, could end up costing the company a lot of money in future royalty settlements.
Aubrey McClendon's legacy will continue to be felt at Chesapeake Energy for a long time. While he did build the company into the country's second largest natural gas producer, his methods to get there were seen as a bit too aggressive, which has created a lot of legacy issues for the company. Meanwhile, he was apparently just as aggressive in building his new company, as he allegedly started compiling a game plan for that venture before ever leaving Chesapeake.
Suffice it to say, McClendon is keeping the lawyers gainfully employed.