Insider trading trial begins against former Amaya CEO David Baazov

MONTREAL _ An insider trading trial against former Amaya CEO David Baazov and his co-accused got underway Monday with defence lawyers reiterating a complaint about their inability to review millions of documents handed over by the securities regulator.

Baazov lawyer Sophie Melchers told Quebec Court judge Salvatore Mascia that they have been unable to review nearly four million documents filed recently by the Quebec securities regulator, the Autorite des marches financiers (AMF), which raided the company’s offices in 2014 related to alleged attempts to influence Amaya’s share price and disclose privileged information.

“For the record, we wish to make it clear that as we start this trial David Baazov and his counsel have not been given by the AMF or this court the time necessary to review the millions of documents disclosed and judged potentially relevant,” she said.

Mascia intervened to criticize the comments related to issues he rejected in turning down a defence motion to stay the process over unreasonable delays.

“This is not the time,” he said. “This is absolutely unnecessary.”

Mascia insisted the rules of equity will apply if the defence wants to call back a prosecution witness to ask additional questions not covered under cross-examination.

Stephanie Lapierre, defence lawyer for co-accused Yoel Altman, expressed similar frustrations.

“Once again the AMF is going to have to live and die by decisions that they have made to make our lives difficult every step of the way,” she told the judge.

The trial is expected to last until fall. The prosecution said it intends to call several witnesses, including investigators for AMF and bankers involved in financing the US$4.9 billion deal for PokerStars in 2014 that transformed the former Montreal firm into the world’s largest public online poker company.

Baazov, who was not in court on Monday, has pleaded not guilty to securities-related charges following an investigation by Quebec’s stock market regulator.

He is charged with five counts, including influencing or attempting to influence the market price of Amaya’s securities.

Two other associates, Altman and Benjamin Ahdoot, face 18 additional charges stemming from the regulator’s investigation and have also pleaded not guilty.

The charges carry penalties of up to five years in prison and $5 million in fines.

In her opening statements, AMF prosecutor Isabelle Bouvier vowed to provide proof that Baazov shared confidential information to his co-accused about the 2014 PokerStars transaction.

She said they used details of the PokerStars transaction that were not available to the average investor to buy shares of Amaya after the company’s share price fell during negotiations for the deal.

Bouvier said emails between Baazov and Altman suggest they were concerned about the lower value of Amaya and needed to get “ahead of shorters like we have done before.”

Amaya is now known as The Stars Group Inc. and has moved its operations to Toronto.

Its shares reached a record high of $42.89 Monday morning in the first trading since announcing Saturday that it struck a $4.7-billion deal to acquire U.K.-based Sky Betting & Gaming. The deal comprises $3.6 billion cash and $1.1 billion in new Stars Group shares.

They were up $4.95 or 13.25 per cent in afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Stars Group said the “pivotal” deal will make it a bigger player in the fast-growing business of online sports betting and become the world’s largest online gaming company.

“Our objective at Stars is to build from strength to strength, capitalizing on our core booking platform to develop senior leadership position in existing verticals. Today’s announcement will vastly accelerate our progress towards that goal,” CEO Rafi Ashkenazi said during a Monday conference call.

Ashkenazi said the deal will secure its position in Britain, the world’s largest online gaming market, and allow it to gain a foothold in emerging regulated markets, including potentially the United States.

Sky Betting is owned by CVC Capital Partners and Sky PLC. Its brands include Sky Bet, Oddschecker and fantasy-sports sites.

Simon Davies of Canaccord Genuity called it “an astute deal” for Stars Group.

“Combined with the strength of the PokerStars brand in the U.S. and its U.S. customer database, it will be in a very strong position to capitalize on the potential revocation of PASPA (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) later this year, which could result in a number of U.S. states legalizing online sportsbook/gaming,” he wrote in a report.