NEW YORK (AP) — Greed on Wall Street set a new record, federal authorities said Wednesday as they unveiled a massive insider trading case charging a hedge fund co-founder with engineering a trade that earned a staggering $53 million in profits.
The illegal trade — the largest transaction ever prosecuted in Manhattan — was part of a $78 million scheme involving at least seven financial industry professionals, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told reporters.
"Today's charges illustrate something that should disturb all of us: They show that insider trading activity in recent times has, indeed, been rampant and routine and that this criminal behavior was known, encouraged and exploited by authority figures in several investment funds," Bharara said.
Of the $78 million, nearly $62 million was earned through tips provided by a Dell Inc. employee to a former Dell worker who spread the information among his friends at at least five investment houses, including three hedge funds. Bharara called it "a stunning portrait of organized corruption on a broad scale" and said it raised to 63 the number of people arrested in a government crackdown on insider trading. So far, there have been 56 convictions.
"Each wave of charges and arrests seems to produce leads to lead us to the next phase," said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Janice K. Fedarcyk.
She said the arrests were not the last in a 4-year-old probe dubbed Operation Perfect Hedge.
"If you are engaged in insider trading, what distinguishes you from the dozens who have been charged is not that you haven't been caught; it's that you haven't been caught yet," she said.
The criminal complaint in U.S. District Court in Manhattan charged four of the men with conspiracy to commit securities fraud and securities fraud, among other charges. Three analysts charged in the other documents have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government.
The insider trading plot was noteworthy for its size. Last month, hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam began serving an 11-year prison term — the longest ever given in an insider trading case — for a scheme that prosecutors said produced as much as $75 million in profits on dozens of trades over a multi-year period. That prosecution resulted in more than two dozen convictions and led to a spinoff probe that produced even more arrests.
Bharara said the case he announced Wednesday was comparable to the one brought against Rajaratnam, of Sri Lanka. He highlighted its size, saying the co-conspirators netted more than $61.8 million in illegal profits based on trades of a single stock from 2008 through 2009. The Securities and Exchange Commission said the profits, combined with $15.7 million earned on trades involving Nvidia Corp., reached nearly $78 million.
SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami said it was disturbing that the case involved high level executives at "some of the largest and most sophisticated hedge funds in the country."
He said there was nothing wrong with fast-trading hedge funds but they are already characterized by a lack of transparency and can pose a "grave threat to the integrity of the markets and the level playing field that is the foundation of those markets" when they use their considerable market power to influence those who possess inside information.
The SEC said the case involved closely associated hedge fund traders at Stamford, Connecticut-based Diamondback Capital Management LLC and Greenwich, Connecticut-based Level Global Investors LP.
Anthony Chiasson, a co-founder at former hedge fund group Level Global Investors, was among four men arrested Wednesday. He surrendered to the FBI in New York.
In court papers, he was credited with a starring role in the securities fraud. Authorities said a hedge fund analyst fed Chiasson inside information about an upcoming announcement of Dell's earnings for the first and second quarters of 2008, allowing Chiasson and others at his hedge fund to make approximately $57 million in illegal profits through trades. Inside information about Dell earnings resulted in $3.8 million in illegal profits at another hedge fund and $1 million in illegal profits at a third hedge fund, the complaint said. The Dell inside information also allowed an investment firm to avoid losses of approximately $78,000, authorities said.
Bail for Chiasson was set at $2.5 million after Assistant U.S. Attorney David S. Leibowitz told a magistrate judge at Chiasson's initial court appearance in Manhattan that the allegations against him were "staggering" and, if successfully proved, could result in a prison sentence of at least 10 years. He said the $53 million Chiasson earned for his hedge fund by shorting Dell stock on early word that its earnings would disappoint was the largest illegal trade ever cited in a criminal case in federal court in Manhattan.
Leibowitz said it took Rajaratnam six years and dozens of trades to accumulate the $70 million in profits alleged by the government in his case. The prosecutor requested a $5 million bail, saying Chiasson was worth at least $40 million and had earned as much as $11 million in a year at his hedge fund.