Rare-earth mining company replaces CEO amid SEC probe

Molycorp said Mark Smith's departure from the company, which mines minerals that are crucial ingredients for mobile phones, was unrelated to a regulatory investigation into the company's public disclosures.

Molycorp Chief Executive Mark Smith looks over the company's 2,222 acre rare-earth mining and processing operation in Mountain Pass, Calif., this summer. Jay Greene/CNET

Mark Smith, the chief executive of rare-earth mineral mining company Molycorp, was replaced today, a month after the company disclosed it was under a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation regarding the accuracy of its public disclosures.

Rare-earth minerals are key ingredients for mobile phones, as well as wind turbines, hybrid cars, and night-vision goggles. The vast majority of rare-earth minerals are mined in China. But Molycorp is one of a handful of Western companies hoping to elbow into that business. This summer, Smith gave CNET a tour of Molycorp's Mountain Pass, Calif., mine as part of a series on the life cycle of iPhones.

Last month, in an SEC filing, Molycorp disclosed that it received a "formal order of investigation" from the agency "regarding, among other things, the accuracy of the Company's public disclosures." The company said it's cooperating with the agency.

Molycorp spokesman Jim Sims said today that Smith's departure is "absolutely not" related to the SEC probe, and that it was "mutually decided" that Smith leave. The company said in a press release that it's moving from a startup busily opening its mine and acquiring companies to one that needs to focus on operations.

"(T)he Board of Directors believes Molycorp is at a natural inflection point, as it transitions its focus from development to ongoing operations, to bring in a proven business leader with industry experience, a track record of operational excellence, and management experience to execute Molycorp's strategy," Molycorp Chairman Ross R. Bhappu said in a statement.

The board appointed Constantine Karayannopoulos as interim president and chief executive. Karayannopoulos, a director and Molycorp's vice chairman, previously served as president and chief executive of Neo Material Technologies, a company Molycorp acquired earlier this year.

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