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Elon Musk, SEC settle legal fight over his tweets about Tesla

Elon Musk, SEC settle legal fight over his tweets about Tesla
Tesla's CEO Elon Musk and the SEC agreed to amend a deal they reached last year by clarifying what communications require oversight and approval for Musk. (Frederik J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

A regulatory fight over Elon Musk’s tweeting habit may be over — for now.

Tesla Inc.’s chief executive and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said in a court filing Friday that they are settling a legal dispute over how Musk posts news about his electric-car company, avoiding a decision by a federal judge in New York on whether the billionaire should be held in contempt of court.

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According to Friday's filing, the two sides agreed to a more specific description of the topics that require prior approval of a Tesla lawyer. Those now include financial information about the company, proposed mergers and other deals, production and delivery numbers, proposed new businesses, projections or forecasts that differ from previous corporate guidance, and new topics that the company or the independent members of the Tesla board of directors decide should be on the list.

Tesla shares rose in extended trading, gaining as much as 1.4% to $238.50 on Friday.

The SEC has argued that a Feb. 19 tweet by Musk violated an October settlement that ended an earlier brouhaha over his proclamations on Twitter. Musk said he hadn’t violated the agreement. Had Musk been found in contempt, the judge had the authority to impose hefty fines and new controls on how the CEO communicates with the public.

At an April 4 hearing, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan urged both sides to “put on your reasonableness pants” and gave them two weeks to work something out. She extended the deadline to April 25. Musk and the SEC on that date then asked for five more days to continue discussions. Meanwhile, Musk has continued to tweet.

The judge had urged both sides to try to eliminate ambiguities in the earlier settlement, which required Musk to get internal approval before issuing some tweets. By reaching a compromise, Musk would avoid more penalties while the SEC would affirm the Tesla CEO’s obligation not to release misleading information on social media.

Musk and the SEC have been fighting since the CEO tweeted Aug. 7 that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private, sending the shares surging. After an investigation, the regulator sued, saying Musk had misled investors. Musk and Tesla ended that dispute by agreeing to each pay $20 million, without admitting wrongdoing.

As part of the October deal, they also agreed that any future social media posts by the CEO would be reviewed by a lawyer — known as Musk’s Twitter sitter — for any information that might affect investors’ decisions. The SEC said Musk violated that agreement when he tweeted in February that Tesla would make about half a million cars in 2019. He corrected that a few hours later, after consulting with the internal lawyer, with a tweet saying deliveries would reach only about 400,000.

The regulator argued that Musk was required to have his tweet approved in advance under the terms of the settlement. Musk’s attorneys countered that the post wasn’t material and that the Tesla CEO has been complying with the accord.

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