Under Armour founder used TV anchor's advice when facing negative coverage, records show

Scott Mlyn | CNBC
  • Under Armour founder Kevin Plank had an unusual relationship with television anchor Stephanie Ruhle, according to court documents.
  • The relationship included private jet rides and access to confidential company information.
  • The revelations stem from a shareholder lawsuit.

Under Armour's founder Kevin Plank forged an unusual relationship with television anchor Stephanie Ruhle that included trips on his private jet, access to confidential company information and a secret phone reserved just for their communications, court records show. 

The records, filed last week in connection with a shareholder lawsuit the athletic apparel company is facing in Maryland federal court, show that Ruhle, who was a Bloomberg reporter at the time, advised the company when it was facing negative coverage. Ruhle is now a nighttime anchor for MSNBC. Plank and Ruhle's relationship previously came up in media coverage in 2019.

In January 2016, when Morgan Stanley published a research report that downgraded Under Armour's stock and reduced its price target, Ruhle asked the apparel company's executives for data that would contradict the report – and then advised they send it to media outlets like CNBC. 

In an email to one of Under Armour's former communications executives Diane Pelkey, who's now Chewy's head of communications, Ruhle asked for "official" numbers and then suggested Pelkey "make the rounds" with the data points.

"[T]his content is perfect just in case anyone decides to cover the Morgan [Stanley] thing – it combats any risk of negativity," Ruhle wrote in the email, according to the filings.  

Pelkey replied, "Agree... Will push positive messages out. Thanks!" according to the filings.

That afternoon, Ruhle questioned the Morgan Stanley report on Bloomberg's air and referenced data points that Plank had gathered. 

A couple of weeks later, when Under Armour reported positive quarterly results, Plank emailed Ruhle "look at that stock!!!" and then helped her arrange an interview with basketball player and Under Armour athlete Stephen Curry the following day, records show. 

Plank, the current executive chairman of Under Armour, asked Pelkey to help set up the interview with Curry.

Plank later told her in an email that the Curry interview served as a "a great thank you" to Ruhle "for being the only member of media to get UA's back when [Morgan Stanley] came out against us."

'We were friends'

The filings raise a host of ethical questions about both Plank and Ruhle and the boundary that reporters must keep between the powerful people that they cover. 

The two were both deposed earlier this year in connection with a shareholder lawsuit filed in 2017 that alleges Under Armour artificially inflated its share price and caused them to lose money. 

When asked during his deposition about the Morgan Stanley report, Plank said the two "had an understanding of trust." 

"She didn't trade in this, her family doesn't trade in this. She's simply giving me input," Plank said, adding it was during the company's quiet period.

He also referred to her as a "confidant" and "someone I get counsel from."

"I would give her counsel on her career and she would give me counsel on things I was dealing with that were either banking or media or human nature in relation," Plank said of their relationship.

Ruhle, for her part, admitted in the deposition that she flew on Plank's private jet at least twice – once from Cannes, France, to New York and another time from New York to Baltimore. 

"We were friends," said Ruhle. "And I covered his company." 

When asked whether the flights on the jet were part of her work as a Bloomberg reporter or as a friend, Ruhle responded: "I was flying on his plane as myself, Stephanie Ruhle. I'm – I'm not really in a category one or the other." 

In her deposition, Ruhle also acknowledged that she had three phones at one point during her relationship with Plank— a work phone, a personal phone and a "Kevin Plank phone" that was used for their communications.

A spokesperson for Under Armour said the filings have "no bearing" on the underlying shareholder lawsuit. 

"Plaintiffs and their counsel have obvious financial incentives to paint these documents in the most negative light. As we have stated, Mr. Plank has utilized confidential advice or counsel from a number of outside advisors from different fields of expertise, and that is what these documents show," the spokesperson said. "Furthermore, none of the information was used improperly."

As far as the shareholder lawsuit, the spokesperson said the claims are "meritless" and are "being defended vigorously." 

MSNBC, which is not named in the lawsuit and didn't employ Ruhle at the time, declined to comment on the matter. Ruhle and Bloomberg didn't immediately respond for requests to comment.

Disclosure: CNBC and MSNBC are owned by NBCUniversal.

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