Prank turned legal minefield: Kudra Falla-Ricketts wrote a media release from Metgasco for April Fools’ Day. Photo: Mireille Merlet-Shaw
Sixteen-year-old Kudra Falla-Ricketts didn't realise how much of a stir her April Fools' prank had caused until she was hauled into her school principal's office.
Kudra, of Lismore, had emailed out a fake press release claiming that the gas drilling company Metgasco was pulling out of northern NSW. But in the tense atmosphere surrounding gas drilling, and with thousands attending anti-coal seam gas protests in parts of the state, Kudra's fake statement wasn't taken as a joke.
Metgasco chief executive Peter Henderson said Kudra's fake press release could have had a ''devastating'' effect on shareholders. Her prank has now been referred to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
Under corporations law, false or misleading statements can attract a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail, a $765,000 fine, or both.
Kudra wrote a statement on Tuesday purporting to be from Mr Henderson, claiming that the company would cease its gas operations in the Northern Rivers region after intense community opposition.
Metgasco would instead start planning for a ‘‘solar thermal plant near Casino’’, the false statement said. Metgasco was forced to release a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange stating the email was a hoax and there was no change to its operations in the Clarence-Moreton Basin.
The prank is reminiscent of the case of Jonathan Moylan, who is being prosecuted by ASIC for sending a fake media release last year. The hoax temporarily wiped $314 million off Whitehaven Coal’s share value.
The document by Kudra bore the Metgasco logo and contained several typographical errors. It was emailed to local journalists using her school email address. She said gas mining threatened water supplies and Metgasco is ‘‘not listening to the people who are telling them to stop’’. The implications only dawned when she was summoned by her principal.
Her father, Aidan Ricketts, a coal seam gas activist, said Metgasco’s referral to the regulator was ‘‘humourless and bullying’’. But Mr Henderson made no apologies.
‘‘We understand it’s a practical joke,’’ he said. ‘‘We don’t wish any bad things to the young lady, we understand she’s made a mistake, but it was fraudulent.’’
He said a drop in share price would have been ‘‘devastating’’ for shareholders. No trading took place before the ASX statement was issued and the company’s share price was not affected.
University of Melbourne law expert Ian Ramsay said Kudra’s young age ‘‘would complicate the situation’’ for ASIC. ‘‘Given that it’s a minor and it appears as though there was no harm caused to the market ... [it might be considered] appropriate to speak to the person to make sure that they understand what they’ve done, rather than move towards any sort of enforcement action,’’ he said.
with Max Mason