Prison term and hefty fines await Jonathan Moylan of the green group Frontline Action on Coal if the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) could prove that he violated laws by sending a fake press released that wiped out $314 million from miner Whitehaven Coal (ASX: WHC).
ASIC Commissioner Greg Tanzer disclosed that penalties for anyone found guilty of spreading false information to the market which could affect market securities face a maximum fine of almost $500,000 and a 10-year jail term.
"The penalties that apply here are really quite severe and they reflect the importance of market integrity to the Australian economy as a whole," ABC quoted Mr Tanzer.
ASIC officers had raided the camp of Mr Moylan in Leard Forest, New South Wales and confiscated a phone and a laptop as part of the regulator's probe. The green activist has admitted to being behind the hoax press release sent to media companies that the ANZ Bank had pulled out its $1.2 billion loan to Whitehaven to be used for expansion of its Maules Creek coal mine.
While Mr Moylan has apologised to shareholders of Whitehaven for their loss, he said he does not regret impersonating an ANZ Bank employee on the phone or exposing the bank's dirty investment in Whitehaven.
"I certainly don't, didn't intend any harm to shareholders in Whitehaven and . . . for the record I do apologise," ABC quoted Mr Moylan.
However, he insisted that his motivation was to prevent the negative impact of the mine on farmers, on the largest remaining forest in the Liverpool Plains, people's health and the country's climate which he said are invaluable and has no dollar figure attached.
"Change doesn't happen without people taking risks. The consequences to me could be very serious but nowhere near as serious as the impact that this mine is going to have on our water and our farmlands," he added.
Senator Christine Milne, Greens leader, even backed Mr Moylan's action which she said were "part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience, potentially breaking the law, to highlight something wrong."
The Coalition criticised Ms Milne for her statement. Eric Abetz, the leader of the Opposition in the Senate, said the Greens' siding with Mr Moylan is disrespect for the rule of law.
"It's taken less than a fortnight after supposedly revising their platform for the Greens to again reveal their extreme political tendencies," Mr Abetz said in a statement.
Mark Vaile, chairman of Whitehaven, said the development that environmentalists want to stop will create a large number of jobs and follow all environmental laws. He added the company will complain to the press council about media outfits that published or aired Mr Moylan's hoax press release.