The United States Thursday filed criminal charges against hedge-fund giant SAC Capital for insider trading, sending a strong sign to Wall Street of intolerance for securities fraud.
The Justice Department indictment follows a multi-year probe into SAC that has produced guilty pleas from six former SAC employees of insider trading and forced the financial giant to pay more than $614 million in a civil settlement.
In addition to the indictment, the Justice Department asked the federal court for forfeiture of SAC's assets. The government will also seek civil money-laundering penalties of an amount to be determined at trial.
The criminal indictment does not name SAC's prominent founder and chief, billionaire Steven Cohen, who owns mansions in Greenwich, Connecticut, and East Hampton, New York, and recently purchased a $155 million Picasso painting.
But Cohen's assets could be at risk in the case.
The government depicts SAC as a thoroughly corrupted hedge fund where insider trading was pervasive, and which became "a magnet for cheaters," as US Attorney Preet Bharara put it during a news conference announcing the charges.
Bharara declined to say how much the government would seek from SAC.
"To all those who run companies and value their enterprises but pay attention only to the money their employees make and not how they make it, today's indictment hopefully gets your attention," he said.
The case centers on a series of trades of technology, pharmaceutical and other companies based on allegedly insider information that the government says allowed SAC to net hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal profits and avoid losses "at the expense of members of the investing public."
The resulting fraud was "substantial, pervasive and on a scale without known precedent in the hedge fund industry," according to the government.
An SAC spokesman defended the firm's compliance record and said the guilty pleas of some employees did not reflect the firm as a whole.
The indictment says SAC recruited portfolio managers based on their access to company insiders who could provide an information "edge"; encouraged employees to propose "high conviction" ideas; and financially motivated employees to recommend stocks that would yield large gains.
Equally problematic, the firm's compliance department was poor at detecting signs of insider trading, downplayed potential problems and pursued few investigations, finding just one case of insider trading and not firing the employees involved or reporting them to regulatory or law enforcement personnel, it said.
FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos described SAC's compliance program in terms of the expression "See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil."
The SAC spokesman said the firm, which held over $15 billion in assets at its peak, would continue to operate.
"SAC has never encouraged, promoted or tolerated insider trading and takes its compliance and management obligations seriously," he said.
"The handful of men who admit they broke the law does not reflect the honesty, integrity and character of the thousands of men and women who have worked at SAC over the past 21 years."
The Justice Department's success in winning guilty pleas from the former SAC employees strengthens the government's case, said Jacob Frenkel, a former federal criminal prosecutor now at Shulman Rogers, a Maryland-based law firm.
"Fortunately for Steve Cohen his liberty is not at risk," Frenkel said. "On the other hand, his personal fortune is in considerable jeopardy."
In a separate action last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it was seeking to bar Cohen from overseeing investor funds after charging him with poor oversight of employees who engaged in alleged insider trading.
The government also released Thursday its complaint against Richard Lee, a former SAC portfolio manager who pled guilty earlier this week to insider trading charges related to inside information about Yahoo's earnings and a planned corporate partnership.
SAC hired Lee despite receiving a warning from an employee of another hedge fund that he had a reputation for insider trading. SAC's business development office overruled the objections of the firm's legal department and hired Lee anyway.