COLUMBUS — A former director of biofuel maker KiOR says he tried to warn other board members about problems with KiOR’s technology to turn wood chips into an oil substitute, claims that could damage the company’s defense in shareholder lawsuits and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.
KiOR denies Paul O’Connor’s claims, saying he was asked to leave the board after an investigation found he withheld a report from the company, talked to people outside the company without authorization and may have violated KiOR’s insider stock trading policy.
The sniping comes as KiOR seeks to raise money and avoid defaulting on $250 million in debt, including $69.4 million owed on a no-interest loan from the state of Mississippi. The company, based in Pasadena, Texas, had warned that it would run out of cash by “approximately Sept. 30” if investment bank Guggenheim Partners couldn’t find a buyer or investor. More than a week after that deadline, the company hasn’t given an update. A spokeswoman did not respond yesterday to a request for comment.
To give the company a chance to avoid bankruptcy, the state pushed back the deadline for a payment on its loan until Oct. 31. Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Jeff Rent said yesterday that as far as the state knows, KiOR is still in operation and is still working with Guggenheim.
KiOR aimed to cook wood chips at high temperatures and pressure into synthetic crude oil, using chemical catalysts. The Columbus-based refinery hasn’t worked as designed and KiOR idled the plant after stopping production in December. The company has laid off most of its workers and contractors to save cash.
KiOR had promised to invest $500 million in Mississippi by 2015’s end, and spend $85 million on wages, wood and other local purchases.
KiOR faces two federal shareholder lawsuits in Houston. One is filed under seal, but the public one alleges that KiOR’s leaders misled investors about progress at the Columbus facility and were “severely reckless” in the production targets they claimed they were going to meet. The lawyers claim that KiOR leaders, including O’Connor, made millions from stock sales thanks in part to misleading investors.
The company has also received two subpoenas from the SEC, the most recent in August, investigating similar claims.
In court papers, KiOR denies doing anything wrong, saying executives disclosed problems as they happened and believed the projections they were giving.
“Plaintiffs have failed to allege any facts showing KiOR’s statements were false or misleading when made,” company lawyers wrote Sept. 2.
O’Connor’s Aug. 31 resignation letter raises questions about those claims. He wrote that he and others at a Dutch company called BIOeCON had invented the technology KiOR used and he worked as chief technical officer for KiOR in 2008 and 2009, remaining a director until May 2011.
O’Connor wrote that by the end of 2011, he received figures showing KiOR hadn’t increased fuel production, and that he told the company it couldn’t reach production targets without “a drastically different approach.”
O’Connor was rehired as a technical consultant and returned to the board. He said he and managers fought over how to improve yields. In his resignation letter, he said he thought managers had not provided directors “with the adequate, right and relevant information to do their job” and were distributing “poorly substantiated projections” to possible investors and buyers.