Posts Tagged ‘securities fraud’

Who Are the Real Victims of Insider Trading?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

 

Last week, the prosecution and the defense filed their sentencing memoranda in the Rajaratnam case.  Raj was convicted of 14 counts in all — 9 counts of securities fraud, and 5 conspiracy counts.  So what do the parties think that’s worth?  The feds asked Judge Holwell to sentence Raj in the range of 19.5 to 24.5 years.  The defense didn’t make a specific request, just said it ought to be “well below” what the feds want.

So 20 years, huh?  Wow, he must have been an awful bad guy.  Must have hurt a whole lot of people, right?

After all, a mugger in a dark alley only takes one person’s wallet.  A “white-collar criminal” can steal from thousands of people — and takes not just their wallet, but their life savings!  Right?

Well, hang on.  Did Raj actually steal from anyone?  How many investors did he really harm?  And did any of them really lose enough money to warrant locking someone up till we all have flying cars and jetpacks?

Judging from the feds’ sentencing memo, you bet.  Just look at this, from the introduction:

Raj Rajaratnam’s criminal conduct was brazen, arrogant, harmful, and pervasive.  He corrupted old friends.  He corrupted subordinates.  He corrupted entire markets.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, Rajaratnam operated as a billion-dollar force of deception and corruption on Wall Street.

Wow, that sounds awful.  So the victims are… who again?

But wait, there’s more:

Rajaratnam repeatedly leveraged the power of money and his position as the head of a 7-billion dollar hedge fund to induce friends, employees, and associates to participate in his criminal activities.  Although already rich, Rajaratnam did this to drive up his personal wealth through profitable trading in his hedge fund.  He did it to make sure that investors did not pull their money out of Galleon and to attract new money to his fund.  And he did it because of his egomaniacal drive to triumph over his competitors on Wall Street.

Again, wow.  (The feds sure like their adjectives, don’t they?  Comes off a tad over-the-top, if not insulting to the intelligence.)  So he was trying to increase his wealth, gotcha.  But at whose expense?  Guess we have to read more:

That was what he cared about: money and success.  What he did not care about, at all, was the extensive harm he left in his wake: harm to the capital markets; harm to the average, ordinary investors who played by the rules; harm to the companies whose secret information was misappropriated; and harm to the lives of those he corrupted.

Well, that sounds a little more like it… but again, who was harmed, and how?

Although particular investors on the other side of Rajaratnam’s illegal trades are not easily identifiable, there should be no question that ordinary investors paid the price for Rajaratnam’s crimes and that public companies were harmed by Rajaratnam’s repeated theft of corporate secrets.

Oh for crying out loud.  Are they joking?  Stripped of its demagogical rhetoric, this translates to “We have not identified any actual victims.  But we shouldn’t have to.  It’s obvious that lots of people must have been harmed, even if we don’t know who they were.”

If they don’t know who — or even whether — anyone was actually harmed here, how in blazes do the feds justify asking for 19.5 to 24.5 years of imprisonment?  Here’s how:

[The feds want that much time because they feel it is] proportionate to the historic nature of his crimes.  He is arguably the most egregious violator of the laws against insider trading ever to be caught.  He is the modern face of illegal insider trading.

That’s it.  That’s all.  “Because this is the first time we’ve ever caught someone so red-handed,” and “because this case got so much press.”  Those are the sole reasons why they are looking to put this guy away until he dies of old age.

Really?

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For the record, we’re predicting (more…)

A Complete List of Goldman Sachs Crimes

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Update: New York Investigating CDS Brokers

The SEC and DOJ’s investigations of Goldman Sachs have been big news for a couple of weeks now. We tend not to post right away on stories like that, because we don’t want to be yet another one of those blogs that just tries to jump on the bandwagon, simply repeating news without adding anything of value to the conversation. So we like to wait until we have some analysis to add.

In the Goldman Sachs case, as pretty much everyone reading this is aware by now, the SEC says Goldman created a mortgage-based investment, sold it to investors, and then bet against it by shorting it themselves. They also say Goldman messed up by letting hedge fund manager John Paulson pick some of the assets, despite the fact that his fund was betting heavily against the housing bubble (and ultimately made a killing when it burst). The SEC filed its suit about 2 weeks ago. Then during this past week, they referred it to the DOJ for criminal investigation. The fine folks at the Southern District are now looking into whether any criminal acts took place.

We’re sure the SDNY is going to be a lot more careful than, say, the Eastern District was with the Bear Stearns case. [Full Disclosure: We represented one of the BSAM fund managers in that case, who was ultimately not indicted.] You know, maybe actually reading emails in context, actually figuring out how hedging is supposed to work, stuff like that?

Nevertheless, it’s a tough job. So as a good citizen, unaffiliated with the case in any way, we’d like to make their job easier. We’ve pored over the factual allegations that have been made, and delved into the facts that have been publicly disclosed so far. And after a great deal of legal analysis and number-crunching (yes, we do this for fun), here is a complete list of all criminal activity that we have been able to identify at Goldman Sachs here:

1).

You’re welcome, guys. Hope this helps!

Stop the Music – 3rd Circuit Slams DOJ’s “Musical Chairs” in Securities Fraud Prosecution

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

musical chairs

SEC Rule 10b-5 is one of the main securities fraud laws. It says you can’t mislead people in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. You can’t make an untrue statement of a material fact. And you can’t fail to state a fact, when without that fact the statements you just made would be misleading.

That seems simple enough. But federal prosecutors in New Jersey seem to be having a hard time figuring out what that means.

In June 2005, the feds in New Jersey indicted Frederick Schiff, the CFO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, for failing to disclose material facts to investors. Allegedly, Bristol-Myers (a drug company) was paying wholesalers to order more drugs than they really needed, so Bristol-Myers could report higher sales numbers and inflate its stock value. Schiff allegedly didn’t tell investors about it during conference calls and in SEC filings. (See the indictment here and the DOJ’s press release here.) That indictment got thrown out for a grand jury leak, so they got a second one in May 2006, and finally a third one in April 2007 that dropped allegations of accounting violations.

With respect to the omissions, the government kept changing its tune. First, they said the company had a duty to correct misleading statements of others, based on a “general fiduciary duty.” The district court helpfully pointed out that there is no such duty in the law. So then the feds said there was a statutory duty under SEC regs S-K, which might actually have worked, but then they changed their mind and put on the record that they weren’t pursuing that theory. There was a “theory of duty based on falsity of reported sales and earnings,” which the District Court said wouldn’t fly. Then they tried to say the stuff left out of filings is a material omission that is misleading if you include the earlier analyst calls in the context (calling it “all of a piece”). The district court ruled that, no, there is no affirmative duty under either the “falsity” or the “all of a piece” theory. “It defies logic,” the court ruled, “to charge as a crime that an utterance in an analyst call must have other words written in a later SEC filing in order to make the utterance in the prior phone call ‘not misleading.’” Thanks for playing. The feds appealed.

In a unanimous decision today (opinion here), the Third Circuit slammed the DOJ for constantly changing its theory of the case, for playing “musical chairs” with its theory of how Schiff’s conduct counted as an unlawful omission under Rule 10b-5.

More importantly, the Circuit said the DOJ’s ultimate theory of liability here — that Schiff had a “general fiduciary” duty as a “high corporate executive” to disclose the inventory issue — was simply overbroad. “This argument reaches too far.”

This is a big setback for the feds, who now are left with a much narrower (more…)

Something to Tide You Over

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

writer-boxed-flipped

We apologize to our loyal readers for the unusual delay between posts. We’ve been on trial, and you know how that goes. Trial is all-consuming. And then there’s all the work that piles up in the meantime. And the wife and kids need a token appearance from us once in a while. So the blog just isn’t happening while we’re on trial.

And that’s how it should be, of course.

So yeah, we’ve been on trial since November 2. We keep predicting that it will end soon, but it never does. With any luck, we’ll have closing arguments tomorrow. But we said the same thing yesterday, and on Friday, and on Thursday… And we’re going to have to take Thursday off if the jury’s still not back with a verdict then, because we’re giving our next “Hope for Hopeless Cases” lecture for West Legal Ed Center that day. So yeah, this case could easily last through Friday.

To tide you over until we finally get a chance to blog again, here’s a link to our latest article in Forbes magazine.

Link

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Excerpt:
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Expert View
BEAR STEARNS DEFENSE HOLDS LESSONS FOR EXECS

Going on offense is the best defense in white-collar cases.

It didn’t take long after the housing boom turned bust and trillions of dollars of wealth had gone poof that the public was out for blood. The government needed to “do something” about the mess.

An obvious point of focus were the securities firms Bear Stearns (now a part of JPMorgan Chase) and Lehman Brothers (now a part of Barclays) which blew up in quick succession. From there, it does not take a huge leap of logic to understand how federal prosecutors set their sights on Ralph Cioffi and Matt Tannin, two former managers of Bear hedge funds who were plucked out of obscurity, paraded through a perp walk and unceremoniously read their rights as criminal defendants.

As their Nov. 10 acquittals attest, they didn’t actually commit any crimes. But that didn’t spare them from two years of hell during which they were investigated, indicted, vilified, prosecuted and put on trial. If they’d lost, that would have all been a picnic compared with the 20 years of prison time they would have faced.

If the case teaches us anything, it’s that such ordeals can befall executives–innocent and otherwise. If enough things go wrong on their watch, it’s not all that rare for bosses to find gung-ho prosecutors eager to indict them before all the facts are in.

That leads to the question: What can you do to protect yourself if you fall under the eye of a suspicious prosecutor? Here, the Bear Stearns case is instructive.

Lesson One
You’re on your own. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an indictment related to your professional activities, don’t count on your…

Continue reading

Feds Could Lose Galleon Case

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

sunken galleon

Colleagues joke that we ought to be peeved that neither Raj Rajaratnam nor any of his codefendants even called us. After all, we’re one of the few white-collar defense attorneys who also know how to defend wiretap cases. But because we’re not on the case, we’re now free to comment on it. (And we have been doing so, getting quoted this week by Forbes and Bloomberg, among others.)

And we think the feds could easily lose this case, if the defense attorneys do their job well.

You’d think that this would be a slam dunk. First of all, it was a case investigated by the fine folks at the SDNY, who are without exception bright, hard-working and of sound judgment. They tend to make sure they’ve built a rock-crusher case before they bother filing charges and issuing press releases. Unlike some other prosecutor’s offices we could name, the Southern District is definitely not amateur hour. When one defends a case they’ve built, one where they’ve ensured that all the potential holes are plugged, the bulk of the defense attorney’s role is simply fighting for a better plea offer.

Secondly, this was a freaking wiretap case. The defendants are on tape, we are told, using their own phones, committing the crimes in their own voices. How much more of a slam dunk could this be?

Well, from where we sit, it’s anything but a slam dunk. In fact, from the defense point of view, we actually think this case is winnable.

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What are we talking about? Two things.

First, this may be the biggest insider trading case in history, but so far as insider trading cases go, this one ain’t the strongest.

Second, this may be the first time a securities fraud was investigated using wiretaps (and now that Spades have been broken, you can bet your sweet bippy that wires are going to start happening a lot more in these kinds of cases), but there are ways that a good defense attorney can fight that kind of evidence and win. Believe it or not, but it’s the truth.

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First, let’s talk about the alleged insider trading.

Insider trading is a relatively new crime, only added to 18 U.S.C. during the new millennium. (We’re not so sure it should be a crime in the first place — it prevents those with relevant market information from acting on that information; it is an artificial yoke on market forces that affect not only share prices but also the flow of such information, causing inefficiencies and black markets in info; it prohibits those who worked to create a gain in share prices from realizing their fullest profits from their work; it prohibits the best and truest information from being a basis for share price; it encourages and protects the holding back of information that by rights should have been public in the first place. If we had our way, not only would insider trading not be a crime, it would be a requirement. But apart from Adam Smith and the Japanese, we’re not sure too many folks agree with us on this one.)

The crime of Insider Trading is committed when, first, there is some secret, non-public information. Next, there has to be someone (like an executive or director) who has a fiduciary duty not to disclose that information, a duty owed to the owner of the information (like the shareholders). Next, the secret info has to be shared in violation of that fiduciary duty. Finally, the person who uses that information had to know that it had been shared in violation of that fiduciary duty.

That’s a lot of steps. That’s a lot of room for reasonable doubt.

Look at this Galleon case. You’ve got some insiders, who allegedly spilled the beans to an informant, who then passed on that information to the Galleon crew. How the heck does one prove — prove — that Rajaratnam knew in his own mind that this second-hand information he got came from a breach of a third party’s fiduciary duty? He didn’t deal with the insiders, he dealt with someone else who had spoken with the insiders. Even if the informant said point blank that this was inside info, that doesn’t mean Rajaratnam knew it to be so. It’s like a big game of “telephone.” It’s hearsay by the time the info gets to him.

And once the secret info has been shared, is it even secret any more? The cat’s out of the bag. Maybe the insiders and the informant should be charged, but when the informant passed that no-longer-secret info on to Galleon, how is that insider trading any more? (Oh, and what hay we could make with the fact that the insiders themselves don’t seem to have been charged in the first place. That is verrrrrry suspicious.)

From what we’ve seen in the papers released by the DOJ, the evidence does not necessarily show actual subjective knowledge on the part of Rajaratnam that the information had really been shared in violation of a specific fiduciary duty owed by particular people to particular others. “Knowledge” is not the same as “probably” or “it must be so.” That’s the mental state of “recklessness,” not “knowledge.” The feds cannot prove this case by a kind of res ipsa loquitur argument.

The case just isn’t that straightforward on the merits. In addition to the arguments I just mentioned, and about half a dozen others off the top of my head right now, a good defense attorney is going to raise all kinds of doubt with the convoluted nature of the alleged schemes. How can one prove knowledge about the original state of the fiduciary breach when the information is supposed to have followed such a tortuous path, even going backwards in one instance, before being acted on?

And what was Rajaratnam’s job? What was the hedge fund’s job? Their job was to gather information. Every stock trader’s job is to gather information. You keep your ear to the ground, listen to the rumors, find out what the scuttlebutt is. And it seems like everyone and their mother has a tip. A rumor. A sure thing.

None of that is insider trading. That’s just Wall Street. The trick to being a successful trader is figuring out which “sure thing” is likely to be right. The decision may be based on a lot of number crunching, or on a gut instinct, but it’s always a judgment call. The successful trader’s judgment calls are just a little better than others’ are, that’s all. And Galleon was one of the successful ones.

The press has raised eyebrows at Rajaratnam’s “relentless pursuit of data,” as the WSJ puts it. Well, duh, that’s his freaking job. If he wasn’t relentlessly pursuing data, he wouldn’t be in the business. If the prosecution tries to make that look incriminating, like he was seeking or desperate for illegal info, a good defense attorney will defuse it with a simple dose of reality.

And the prosecution needs to convince all 12; the defense only needs one to be unsure. The defense would like to convince all 12, but they don’t need to. There is plenty of room for argument on the merits alone.

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And while we’re talking about the merits of the case, this may be an opportunity for defense counsel to go to the prosecutors and convince them not to seek an indictment. It’s tough, when the prosecutors have made statements to the press and put their own integrity on the line. But a prosecutor of real integrity will always put that aside and do the right thing.

The trick is getting them to see that their present position is wrong. Stupid defense attorneys just whine and beg and plead, but that only works on stupid prosecutors. A halfway-decent prosecutor has made up his mind based on the evidence he’s got. That may only be a thin sliver of reality, and it may well be completely out of the proper context, but it is what he understands reality to be.

The only way you’re going to change a prosecutor’s mind is by either giving them new information that they didn’t already have, or by giving them a new way of looking at the evidence before them.

That is advocacy. And in a case like this, it may behoove defense counsel to advocate fiercely for a rethinking of the charges. Strategically, it may not be the best choice, because of all the press this case has garnered, meaning that the prosecution might just as well be presumed to be inflexible. But we did precisely this in the Bear Stearns subprime hedge fund case, and the manager we represented did not get prosecuted. And that case had just as much, if not more, publicity at the time. It’s an option, here, at the very least.

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But what about the wiretaps? How do you get around that? Isn’t that pretty much the defendants convicting themselves out of their own mouths?

No way.

Wiretap evidence is anything but a sure thing. We know. We did wires for years in the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, and now we defend them. We’ve taught a nationwide CLE on how to successfully defend them for West LegalEdCenter. Wiretaps are not a sure thing.

They can be defeated with technicalities. Eavesdropping is probably the greatest invasion of privacy that the government can inflict, and so we make law enforcement jump through all kinds of hoops before they are allowed to get an eavesdropping warrant. There are so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, that the feds hardly use wiretaps in the first place. You’d think otherwise, but it’s so. Plus, they have to go through so many steps in the chain of command to get permission to apply for a warrant, that by the time they could have done so the need or probable cause has evaporated. State prosecutors do way more wires than the feds do.

Because the feds rarely do them, they’re not necessarily as on the ball as certain state-level offices might be. And except for those few high-caliber state offices, the locals can be even more error prone.

That’s big, because little errors in wiretaps have big consequences. Usually, they mean the government loses the case. A little oversight leads to the suppression of all the evidence derived from that point forward in the case, and a multimillion-dollar investigation just went down the toilet. No bullshit.

What kinds of technicalities are there? Tons. Some are just stupid. One particularly stupid requirement is the “sealing” requirement. The idea is that we don’t want to risk having the tapes or CD-ROMs of the intercepted conversations tampered with. We don’t want Nixonesque 17-minute gaps in the evidence. We want the assurance that the evidence never had a chance to be fucked with, and is as pristine now as when it first came in. And so the law requires that the tapes or CDs be sealed immediately, which usually means having them wrapped in evidence tape and having a judge sign and date the tape with a Sharpie.

But “immediately” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Instead of sealing the tapes right after they were recorded, the law says they have to be signed within 24 hours after the expiration of the warrant. Warrants are typically good for 30 days. So the whole month’s worth of tapes or CDs have to be assembled and sealed no later than 24 hours to the minute after the expiration of the wire. And that can be a tough deadline to meet. Especially when, say, it’s 5:04 on a Friday afternoon and all the judges are on their way out of town for the weekend. Or when, out of the hundred or so tapes for that month, one of them by accident didn’t make it into the group to be sealed, which can easily happen. Or when the judge took forever reading that 160-page renewal application, and the deadline passed when he’d only signed half the tapes.

This 24-hour rule is not a “good faith” or “close enough” rule. 24 hours and one minute means the evidence on those tapes cannot be used, and any evidence that resulted from what was heard on those tapes must be suppressed. The case is over. It’s technicalities like these that make prosecutors sweat and cross their fingers and hope the defense attorney won’t be paying attention.

Another technicality, believe it or not, is who signed the warrant application in the first place. The law is very particular about who is allowed to sign the application. Only certain enumerated DOJ officials, or the elected head of the DA’s office, are allowed to do it. We once had to work pretty hard when a very good defense attorney named Marty Adelman noticed that we’d had a substitute sign on behalf of Mr. Morgenthau when the boss was out of town. We had to prove that he really was legitimately unavailable, not merely at a function or indisposed, and that the substitute was the legitimate second-in-line. We’d done it right, of course, but others don’t. At one point, about a gazillion wiretaps had to be thrown out because the U.S. Attorneys in D.C. were having them signed by someone not on the authorized list.

The big thing, of course, when trying to controvert an eavesdropping warrant, is not the technicalities but the probable cause.

There has to have been probable cause to believe that a particular crime, listed in the wiretap statute, was being committed. That evidence of that crime would be found by listening in on a particular phone. That a particular named person would be using that phone, whose conversations would be evidence of the crime. And traditional investigative methods like surveillance, undercovers, informants, subpoenas, etc. wouldn’t get the job done.

That’s a lot to prove. The warrant applications have a heavy burden to meet. A good defense attorney is going to look for chinks in the armor, weaknesses in the alleged probable cause, and is going to fight hard to get the warrants and all their fruits thrown out.

And doing that work, and making the prosecution work hard to defend itself, and letting them know that they’re going to be working this hard for the rest of the case, can convince them to rethink their plea position at the very least.

When looking at probable cause, a decent attorney is going to notice whether the warrant application sections laying out the arguments are just boilerplate, cut-and-pasted from earlier applications, or whether they actually are tailored to the investigation as it then stood. Boilerplate, if it doesn’t really apply here, is a fraud on the court! That warrant and everything thereafter just got thrown out.

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Well, what if the defense litigated the eavesdropping, but it’s all still coming in? They’ve got a trial on their hands. What do they do now? They can’t fight the tapes in front of a jury can they? How can you possibly cross-examine taped evidence?

It ain’t easy, but a smart lawyer can do it.

First of all, you have to realize how wires get started. They don’t come out of the blue. Probable cause does not land in some cop’s lap.

There’s an easy way, and a hard way, to start a wire. The hard way is to have all this suspicion, based on historical intel about your players, surveillance of their movements, and scuttlebutt from the community. Then you track down their phone numbers, and subpoena tons of call records to see who they’re calling and when. Then you look for patterns, and see what you can dig up about the people they call. And you try to put together a res ipsa argument that this criminal activity must be going on over that phone. That ain’t the easy way.

The easy way, like with any investigation, is to flip an informant. Someone screws up, and now needs to work off a likely sentence. The only way they can do that is by getting someone else in trouble. So they agree to wear a body wire, or introduce an undercover, or (usually) consent to the recording of their own phone calls with the target.

Bang. Right there, we’ve got all kinds of arguments for reasonable doubt. Arguments to piss the jury off at the government and want to acquit our client.

Because what is the informant trying to do? He’s trying to get our client in trouble. He’s trying to elicit an incriminating statement over the phone that’s going to let the government tap that number. That doesn’t just happen.

No, that call is going to be scripted. Or rehearsed. Or both. That call is going to have a purpose, and Mr. Informant is going to do whatever he can do to manipulate that conversation so he gets the incriminating words he wants. Or at least words that sound incriminating.

You see where this is going, don’t you? You may never use the word “entrapment” itself, but by golly you’re going to plant that concept in the jury’s mind. That informant was out to save his own skin. That informant did not tell our client the truth. That informant lied about what that conversation was about. Those lies were scripted and rehearsed with the agents beforehand. This whole case is built on lies. And the conversation didn’t go according to plan. Our client was not about to incriminate himself. So that informant manipulated him, changed the subject, hounded him, cajoled him to say things he otherwise never would have said. Throw some in-check indignation, and you can have one pissed-off jury.

And you fight the recordings themselves. “But look at the transcripts, they’re cut and dried,” you say? Poppycock. Those transcripts are nothing but interpretation. Any defense lawyer who sits back and relies on the government’s own interpretation of what is on those tapes needs to find another line of work.

Because everything on those recordings is open to interpretation. Nobody in the real world speaks in clear prose, with footnotes explaining their jargon and inside references. Nobody talks like that.

People throw ideas around. They talk things through. They change their mind. Taken out of context, a statement on Day 1 can sound really incriminating. But in context with a statement on Day 2, it’s perfectly innocent.

People talk in code. Not just spies and crooks, but everyday folks. Nobody spells it all out, that would infuriate the listener. Stuff that the other person also knows goes unsaid. People use jargon that outsiders can easily misinterpret. Phrases like “you’re going to put me in jail” could really be a schtick between friends for “my boss isn’t going to like this,” rather than the literal meaning. But taken out of context, perfectly innocent words can sound damning. Any one of us could face prosecution if our own conversations were selectively lifted out of context.

So it is critical that the defense listen to all of the intercepts, not just those highlighted as the prosecution’s greatest hits. The defense needs to get the whole context, and be able to explain ostensibly incriminating conversations as being perfectly innocent. The client should help as much as possible.

Other room for interpretation is what the freaking words were in the first place. We had plenty of occasions where we listened to a tape and heard one phrase, our detectives heard at least two different phrases, and our trusted paralegals heard it yet another way. Nobody enunciates every consonant. Speech is casual. It’s rushed. It’s muddled. It’s amazing that our brains can separate out as much as we do. But in doing so, we often see patterns where they don’t exist, and hear words and meanings that were never said. It’s like optical illusions for the ear, and they happen all the time. Have an inaudibility hearing if you have to, and get the statement tossed altogether if need be.

So any fool who relies on the government’s transcripts deserves to be called a fool. Make your own dang transcript, and make sure you can sell it to the jury. You want to be the voice they trust.

There are tons of other ways to tear the intercepts apart. These are just a starter. But this post is already getting far too long and we’re getting sleepy.

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The point is that the Galleon case is built on wiretaps, and the “greatest hits” released by the DOJ in its press releases seem eminently attackable. The rest of their recordings are probably even more open to attack. And the merits look pretty darned shaky to begin with. They have to prove actual knowledge, that doesn’t seem to be all that obvious. The ties to the people with the actual fiduciary duty are second-hand at best, and the tie is a lousy rat out to save their own skin. And the insiders are suspiciously not even being prosecuted themselves?

Based on the little that has been released, this case seems to be a prime candidate for reasonable doubt. It just doesn’t look like a slam dunk. The defense has a pretty good shot at winning.

We’ll keep watching, and wish the best of luck

Yet More Prosecutorial Misconduct by the Feds

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

peroration

We’ve asked it before, but what the heck is going on with some of these federal prosecutors nowadays? There was the whole Ted Stevens fiasco over the winter, when the feds actively withheld exculpatory evidence and witnesses in their rush to convict the former Senator. Then the 7th Circuit directed an acquittal after the feds blatantly misrepresented the facts in a food labeling case. The W.R. Grace case was screwed by federal prosecutors who withheld exculpatory evidence and gave the judge reason to say he has “no faith in anything the Government says” any more.

And now we get yet another case of the feds blatantly misrepresenting the facts. This time, the 9th Circuit reversed and ordered a new trial, though it’s doubtful that there will be another one.

The case is U.S. v. Reyes, decided this morning. This was one of those options backdating cases that were all over the news for a while back in ’06 and ’07. (“Backdating” is when a company retroactively picks an effective date for stock options, so as to maximize the potential value of those options. It’s a crime when the extra value isn’t accounted for as an expense, because then the books give investors a false image of the company’s finances.)

Gregory Reyes was the CEO of Brocade Communication Systems. In August 2006, Reyes was charged with securities fraud and related crimes for backdating options without properly accounting for them. At trial, his defense was that he had no intent to deceive. He just signed off on the options in good-faith reliance on his company’s Finance Department.

High-ranking Finance Department employees had given statements to the FBI, describing how they knew all about the backdating scheme. But they didn’t testify at trial. Instead, the prosecution called a Finance Department employee who said she didn’t know about the backdating.

The prosecutor was well aware of the fact that others in the department knew all about it. But during closing arguments, he told the jury that the Finance Department employees “don’t have any idea” that backdating was going on.

After several days of jury deliberations, Reyes was convicted. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison with $15 million in fines. That was stayed pending appeal.

This morning, in an opinion byJudge Schroeder, the 9th Circuit held that this was prosecutorial misconduct, and reversed the conviction, ordering a new trial. Reyes argued that he didn’t know the Financial Department wasn’t accounting properly for the backdating, and the feds argued that the Financial Department didn’t know about the backdating. So that was a key question for the jury to decide. And the feds had lied to the jury.

And this wasn’t just a simple little throwaway line, either. The prosecutor did not even limit his argument to the testimony of the witness he’d cherry-picked to give the false impression that nobody in the Finance Department knew about it (which might actually have been permissible). No, the prosecutor:

asserted as fact a proposition that he knew was contradicted by evidence not presented to the jury. In direct contravention of the statements given to the FBI by Finance Department executives that they did know about the backdating, the prosecutor asserted to the jury in closing that the entire Finance Department did not know about the backdating, and further that the government’s theory of the case was that “finance did not know anything.”

“Our theory is that those people didn’t know anything. . . . [The cherry-picked witness] says finance didn’t know. Did you need everybody in the Finance Department to come and tell you that they didn’t know?”

The government even displayed for the jury a diagram explaining the prosecutor’s position that the Finance Department did not know of the backdating. The prosecutor asked the jury to assume other employees of the Finance Department would testify that they did not know about Reyes’ backdating procedure, when the prosecutor knew they did.

Federal prosecutors have “a special duty not to impede the truth.” As the 9th Circuit pointed out today, there is good reason to hold prosecutors to a higher standard: Their words carry the weight and imprimatur of the government itself, which can be very persuasive to a jury.

The 9th Circuit didn’t go so far as to direct an acquittal or dismiss the indictment, because the defense had also played it pretty aggressively. Instead, they ordered a new trial. It is anyone’s guess whether the feds will be up to the task of trying the case all over again, years after the fact. But we’ll go out on a limb and predict that this case will never see a jury again.

For crying out loud, feds! And for shame.

Memo to White-Collar Witnesses: Get Your Own Lawyer!

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

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A “Martha Stewart moment” is that unhappy moment during a white-collar investigation when one’s client misleads the investigators. A client who may have escaped prosecution entirely has now practically ensured that she will be prosecuted. If his client must speak with investigators, a good attorney tries to prepare her well, to prevent any Martha Stewart moments from happening.

During the recent SEC investigation of a possible $8 billion fraud at Stanford International Bank, they interviewed Stanford Financial Group’s chief investment executive, Laura Pendergest-Holt (pictured). She was accompanied to the interview by Proskauer Rose partner Thomas Sjoblom, a very good and experienced attorney.

Last Thursday, the investigation went criminal, as Pendergest-Holt was charged with a federal crime. She’s alleged to have had a Martha Stewart moment, lying to the SEC about her knowledge of Stanford’s investments, and about not meeting with other Stanford people to prepare for her meeting with the SEC.

How could that happen, when she had such a good lawyer?

The answer appears to be (first pointed out by Zach Lowe) that Sjoblom wasn’t actually her lawyer. He represented Stanford, not its executive.

This is something that comes up all the time in the white collar world. When a corporation is under investigation, it hires lawyers to protect its interests. The interests of its executives and employees are not always the same — in fact they are rarely the same — and so to avoid potential conflicts of interest they usually get separate counsel.

If the same law firm represented a corporation and its CIO, somewhere down the line the CIO might decide that it’s in her interest to testify against the company. That would cause a conflict of interest, so the company will usually insist that she get her own lawyer.

If the corporation’s attorneys speak with the CIO, they must make it very clear that they only represent the company, and do not represent the individual. In this case, Sjoblom made it very clear at least twice during the SEC meetings that he was Stanford’s lawyer and not Pendergest-Holt’s. It is not yet known whether he made this clear to Pendergest-Holt (he did not return Lowe’s calls seeking comment, but commenting is probably improper anyway), though it is hard to imagine that he did not do so.

Sjoblom had a bit of a dilemma in that situation, regardless. As Stanford’s lawyer, he probably needed to get information from Pendergest-Holt. And he probably needed to cooperate fully with the investigators. He would have had to make it perfectly clear to her that, as he did not represent her, anything she said to him would not be privileged. (Well, Stanford could assert a privilege perhaps, but Pendergest-Holt could not.)

If Pendergest-Holt reasonably believed that Sjoblom represented her, and then Sjoblom shared her information with Stanford or the SEC, then Sjoblom could well be liable in a civil suit. Again, there is no reason to believe that such is actually the case, and this is only mentioned to stress the challenges presented to the corporation’s attorney in a situation like this.

How does the company’s lawyer get information out of its CIO, then? If the lawyer tells the CIO he doesn’t represent her, and nothing she says is going to be confidential, and in fact he’s obligated to share her information, then she’s not going to want to talk. The solution is simple and cold: the lawyer must inform the CIO that if she doesn’t talk she will be fired.

Given all the warnings that must have been given, alerting her that Sjoblom did not represent her, it is strange to see that she didn’t get her own counsel. Nevertheless, Pendergest-Holt somehow appeared before the SEC without being represented by her own lawyer. She didn’t have someone watching out for her own interests, and now she’s been arrested and charged with a federal crime as a result.

She has lawyers now, of course. She is represented by the firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer in the civil SEC matter, and by Houston’s Dan Cogdell in the criminal matter. Still, we have to wonder why she waited until it was too late before she got her own counsel.

Memo to executives and employees: Get your own lawyers!

Gang Crime Rising, So More… White-Collar Prosecutions?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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Gang crime is on the rise, the FBI reports. The politicians and prosecutors, however, are focusing on white-collar crime these days. Here’s a look at why this is happening.

Gang crime seems to have increased, ironically, as a result of improved anti-gang law enforcement in the big cities.

According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, street gangs have started expanding more rapidly from urban centers into suburban and rural areas. This has spurred new membership, as fresh populations are opened to gang recruitment. By the end of last year, about a million people were estimated to belong to gangs within the U.S.

One might think that the burbs lack the same social pressures that drive gang membership. Gangs are products of the inner cities, after all, where kids lack fathers to lead them, involved communities to belong to, competent schools to teach them, and opportunities for money and glory. We expect gangs to arise in the inner cities of single moms, apathetic neighbors, dysfunctional schools, government welfare and hopelessness. Suburbia’s not like that, right?

Well, according to the NGTA, drugs drove the expansion. During the 1980s, the suburbs began to become a profitable new market for drug dealers who had previously focused on the urban market. During the 1990s, the huge profits from suburban drug sales caused the street gangs to physically expand their territory, often resulting in violence as urban gangs clashed with local toughs and with each other in the race to occupy the burbs.

Meanwhile, law enforcement started cracking down on gang and drug crime in the cities. It was getting dangerous to operate in NYC, LA and Chicago. Suburban cops, however, just weren’t as much of a concern. The burbs were also seen as safe places to hide from unsuspecting law enforcement, unused to dealing with a gang element.

The combination of weaker opposition from law enforcement, and higher profits from suburban drug users paying “white boy prices,” was a clarion call for gang expansion. It was an irony that improved law enforcement actually resulted in the spread of gang-related crime.

There were other reasons for the spread of gangs into suburban and rural communities, not detailed by the NGTA report. From the author’s own interviews with drug traffickers in the New York area, gangs sometimes followed inner-city populations that had moved out there first. People on government assistance began moving out to places such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania and various towns Upstate along the Hudson River, because a person on welfare could have a nicer quality of life there. Many of them brought with them the quality of life that they were trying to avoid, unfortunately. And those who were drug users brought their demand with them. And so the dealers followed, the gangs followed, and the forces that spurred gang recruitment never went away.

Despite the spread of violent crime and drug trafficking, however, the FBI is focusing more on white collar crime. White collar crimes certainly are on the rise lately, especially fraud cases.

“We may not be doing as many drug enterprise operations,” Special Agent in Charge Richard Lambert recently said, “so we can focus more on mortgage fraud and corporate fraud problems.”

In just the past month or so, 3000 new FBI positions have been created to combat white collar crime. On top of those new hires, the Senate Banking Committee is preparing a $110 million fund that would hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC agents.

Bill co-sponsor Chuck Schumer (D-NY) stated in the accompanying press release that “our white collar crime divisions are under-staffed, under-funded, and overwhelmed. When a wave of violent crime sweeps through a city, the immediate response is to beef up the police forces, putting more cops on the beat, extending overtime, and making sure the city returns to safety. Our reaction to the financial crisis and the massive and complex financial fraud investigations that loom should be no different.”

Why the rise in white collar cases? It’s not just the economy, stupid.

Sure, people may be tempted to commit crimes in an economic downturn. But this usually applies to people who are on the bottom rungs of the economy. Wall Street types and CEOs don’t start robbing banks just because their net worth slipped a bit.

Instead, white collar crime goes on all the time. What’s changing now is not the number of crimes being committed, as the number of cases being prosecuted. There’s a difference. As Anne van Heerden, head of forensics at KPMG Switzerland told Swissinfo, “I do not believe that the number of cases is growing, but rather the detection rate is increasing.”

Sophisticated financial crimes have always been sexy for law enforcement. What prosecutor didn’t want to convict the next Ivan Boesky, Andy Fastow or Michael Milken? The problem is, they’re hard to catch. The crimes take place on paper, in back rooms, and on golf courses. Not places frequented by cops or detectives. Evidence is often hard to find, and even harder to comprehend if found.

But the new economic downturn — which many see as the direct result of white collar crime — has led to new political pressure to “do something about it.” (At a function last week, we joked with a prominent judge that our white-collar defense practice was recession-proof, to which the judge responded “yes, but your clients caused the recession.”) Elected officials feel that pressure to “do something,” and they start rewarding successful prosecutions, and funding more of them.

So the word has come down from above that white-collar prosecutions are what the chiefs want. And that’s what they’re getting.

Expect to see more.

We’re Not Alone

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

 

Yesterday, we observed that there have been a lot of Ponzi schemes coming down lately, and asked what gives? Today, the Wall Street Journal made the same observation, and asked the same question.

Here are some points from the article:

* In 2007, the SEC had brought civil actions from 15 alleged Ponzi schemes. In 2008, they brought 23 such cases. So far this month, they’ve already brought 9. And that doesn’t include all the state-level fraud cases that have come down.

* On the criminal side, there have already been 6 multimillion-dollar fraud cases brought this month.

* Experts say these schemes are being discovered now because of the economic downturn. Investors try to cash out their investments, only to learn that the money’s gone. There’s also less money out there being invested, so the source of cash for these schemes dries up, and the house of cards comes crashing down.

The New York Times also had some similar observations:

* “What is causing them to surface now appears to be a combination of a deteriorating economy and heightened skepticism about outsize returns after the revelations about [Bernie Madoff]. That can scare off new clients and cause longtime investors to demand their money back, which brings the charade tumbling down.”

* The Commodities Futures Trading Association has also experienced a doubling of reported Ponzi schemes in the last year.

* On Thursday last week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Shelby introduced a bill to hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC officials to crack down on these crimes.

Yet Another Massive Ponzi Scheme Alleged. What’s that tell you?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

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Nick Cosmo, the 37-year-old head of Agape World Inc. and Agape Merchant Advance, was arraigned today on charges that he ran a Ponzi scheme that cheated investors out of $370 million since 2006.

The feds allege that about 1,500 investors were promised annual returns of as much as 80%. These huge profits were to come from short-term loans to businesses. Instead of coming from actual profits, however, the complaint states that returns paid to investors actually came from the outlays of subsequent investors.

Investor money went mostly to pay other investors, in a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul setup similar to the Bernie Madoff and seemingly countless other Ponzi schemes hitting the news these days. About $55 million went to pay brokers who brought in the investors. A bunch of cash was allegedly spent on expensive luxuries for Cosmo himself, as well as to pay the restitution ordered in a previous mail fraud conviction. Only about $10 million actually went to the loans that were supposed to be the core investment. The firm also transferred $100 million since 2003 into Cosmo’s futures-trading accounts, of which $80 million was lost. As of last Thursday, said prosecutors, Cosmo’s firms had less than $750,000 in the bank.

Agape World was listed as #73 in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Hot 100 fastest-growing businesses in America. (See its listing, screenshotted above.)

This is just one more in a series of prosecutions that have been coming down lately. Prosecutors are clearly ramping up their focus on financial crimes in the wake of the Bear Stearns meltdown — it’s definitely the sexy crime of the moment, where the press is throwing a lot of ink, where reputations stand to be made. Of course, crime is only found where it’s looked for, and right now this is a hot (and relatively easy) crime to prosecute. So it makes sense that this is where prosecutors are focusing lots of assets.

But apart from that, what does it mean about the rest of us? Almost all of these Ponzi schemes promised investors stupid-high returns. Wasn’t it obvious to the investors what was going on? Were they just blinded by the go-go stock market, while it was hot? Were they desperate for a winning number after the market soured? Lots of the alleged victims out there were sophisticated investors — one would think they at least would have known the meaning of “too good to be true.” We’d like to hear what you think is going on.

We guess people’s common sense just gets blinded by the prospect of easy gains. And it happens often enough, to enough people who ought to know better, that this crime continues to proliferate nearly a hundred years after it became part of the common lingo.

Oh well, more work for us defense attorneys.

“Not With Me, They Don’t” – Race Not a Factor in Sentence, Says Judge

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

 

District Court Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Jeanetta Standefor to more than 12 years in prison on Tuesday, for running an $18 million Ponzi scheme that preyed on middle-class black investors.

Standefor, who is also black, solicited investments from 650 people around Pasadena who thought the money would go to buying properties about to go into foreclosure. To maintain the illusion of profits, Standefor transferred $14 million of the invested money to early investors. She also spent about a million per year on herself, according to AUSA Stephanie Yonekura-McCaffery. The operation was run through her company Accelerated Funding Group — a name that is practically probable cause in itself.

At the sentencing hearing in the Central District of California, victims told Judge Anderson how they had trusted Standefor with their savings, often their life savings, after she first befriended them. Investors were told that they could make 50% profits in the first month.

Standefor’s attorney, federal defender Charles Brown, argued for leniency. “She is not a serial killer,” he said. “She is not a drug dealer. This is not a person who needs to be thrown in jail and locked up to learn her lesson.” He added that she was a foster child “who worked her entire life to prove her worth. . . [but] she took shortcuts, and started taking from Peter to pay Paul, and that’s how we got here.”

Judge Anderson disagreed with the defense attorney’s characterization, telling Standefor that even if this was just a white-collar crime, she was just as guilty “as if you’d taken a gun out and held it to the victims’ heads.”

Judge Anderson then ruled on sentence. Shortly before he imposed the sentence, however, Brown made one last attempt for leniency. Urging the judge to reconsider, Brown pointed out that the sentence was not consistent with those for similar cases around the country. Brown argued that it seemed to him that blacks get harsher sentences, even when they are convicted of white-collar crimes.

“Not with me, they don’t,” interrupted the judge, who is also black. “This isn’t about being black.”

Standefor was then sentenced to 151 months in prison and almost $9 million in restitution.

Update: New York Investigating CDS Brokers

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Update: New York Investigating CDS Brokers

As we reported yesterday, the New York Attorney General and the Southern District of New York have teamed up to investigate allegations of wrongdoing with respect to credit-default swaps. The AG’s office is now reported to have subpoenaed trading data and communications from several interdealer brokers, small firms that facilitated the swaps and other trades.

A CDS is a form of insurance, though contractual in nature and not regulated. Essentially, the CDS buyer wants to protect a debt investment or asset. In return for fees from the buyer, the CDS seller agrees to make a payment if the underlying debtor defaults or goes bankrupt.

CDS contracts enabled the securitization of subprime mortgages into tranches that could be rated as investment-grade. If underlying asset values dropped, the CDS payment would still net a profit. Presuming, of course, that the CDS seller actually had the wherewithal to make the necessary payment.

Interdealer brokers earned fees from facilitating CDS deals between financial institutions. Buyers and sellers need to keep their bargaining positions secret from each other, which makes direct negotiation difficult. For a fee, an interdealer broker puts buyers and sellers together, while keeping the identities of the parties a secret from each other.

Law enforcement is now investigating whether interdealer brokers were breaking the rules, and disclosing information that they existed for the purpose of keeping secret. Also under investigation is the possibility that interdealer brokers were giving out false information, so as to manipulate CDS prices. These CDS prices in turn had a huge effect on the share values and bond prices of major financial institutions.

Wave of White-Collar Investigations is Coming

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

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“The nation’s top white-collar criminal defense practices are receiving a steady flow of inquiries from clients embroiled in the ongoing credit crisis,” reports the National Law Journal. This is consistent with reports we have heard within the white-collar defense community.

With the economy continuing to take hits from the financial sector, there seems to be a growing demand for blame. Billions of dollars in pensions and retirement funds have disappeared, the money supply is crippled by banks refusing to extend credit, and jobs and tax revenue are at stake.

As the public and its elected officials call for punishment, state and federal prosecutors are launching investigations to see whether anyone broke the law. Anyone involved with complex debt instruments, which appear to have been responsible for much of the vanished wealth, ought not to be surprised to find themselves part of a criminal or regulatory investigation.

As we previously reported, Lehman Brothers executives are already being looked at. And of course the Eastern District of New York has already indicted two managers of the Bear Stearns subprime mortgage hedge funds. But that, our sources tell us, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Credit-default swaps, which enabled much of the subprime hedge fund investments, are now the focus of a joint investigation being brought by the New York Attorney General and the Southern District of New York.

The SEC has also begun taking action in investigations that had appeared to be dormant. Of particular interest to the SEC would be whether executives made misleading statements to investors or analysts about the financial health of their funds or institutions.

“Attorneys report hearing from clients,” reports the NLJ, “who are either already in receipt of subpoenas from federal and state investigators, or who are worried about what the mail will bring. Every lawyer interviewed agreed that their clients — including those confident they kept within the law — would be wise to anticipate that the government will cast a very wide net.”