Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit, as expected (at least by me), denied Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's request for reargument and reconsideration of its December 2014 ruling in United States v Newman which narrowed, at least in the Second Circuit, the scope of insider trading prosecutions. I would not be surprised if the government seeks certiorari, and, I would not be all that surprised it cert were granted.
In Newman, the defendants, Newman and Chiasson, were two hedge fund portfolio managers who were at the end of a chain of recipients of inside information originally provided by employees of publicly-traded technology funds. The defendants traded on the information and realized profits of $4 million and $68 million respectively. There was, however, scant, if any, evidence that the defendants were aware whether the original tippors had received any personal benefit for their disclosures.
The Second Circuit reversed the trial convictions based on an improper charge to the jury and the insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the court ruled that:
1) the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury that in order to convict it had to find that the defendants knew that the corporate employee tippors had received a personal benefit for divulging the information; and
2) the government had indeed failed to prove that the tippors had in fact received a personal benefit.
Thus, at least in the Second Circuit, it appears that the casual passing on of inside information without receiving compensation by a friend or relative or golf partner does not violate the security laws. "For purposes of insider trading liability, the insider's disclosure of confidential information, standing alone, is not a breach," said the court. Nor, therefore, does trading on such information incur insider trading liability because the liability of a recipient, if any, must derive from the liability of the tippor. To analogize to non-white collar law, one cannot be convicted of possessing stolen property unless the property had been stolen (and the possessor knew it). Those cases of casual passing on of information, which sometimes ensnared ordinary citizens with big mouths and a bit of greed, are thus apparently off-limits to Second Circuit prosecutors. To be sure, the vast majority of the recent spate of Southern District prosecutions of insider trading cases have involved individuals who have sold and bought information and their knowing accomplices. Although Southern District prosecutors will sometimes now face higher hurdles to prove an ultimate tippee/trader's knowledge, I doubt that the ruling will affect a huge number of prosecutions.
The clearly-written opinion, by Judge Barrington Parker, did leave open, or at least indefinite, the critical question of what constitutes a "personal benefit" to a provider of inside information (an issue that also might impact corruption cases). The court stated that the "personal benefit" had to be something "of consequence." In some instances, the government had argued that a tippee's benefit was an intangible like the good graces of the tippor, and jurors had generally accepted such a claim, likely believing the tippor would expect some personal benefit, present or future, for disclosing confidential information. In Newman, the government similarly argued that the defendants had to have known the tippors had to have received some benefit.
Insider trading is an amorphous crime developed by prosecutors and courts - not Congress - from a general fraud statute (like mail and wire fraud) whose breadth is determined by the aggressiveness and imagination of prosecutors and how much deference courts give their determinations. In this area, the highly competent and intelligent prosecutors of the Southern District have pushed the envelope, perhaps enabled to some extent by noncombative defense lawyers who had their clients cooperate and plead guilty despite what, at least with hindsight, seems to have been a serious question of legal sufficiency. See Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646, 103 S.Ct. 3255 (1983)(test for determining insider liability is whether "insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly"). As the Newman court refreshingly said, in language that should be heeded by prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, "[N]ot every instance of financial unfairness constitutes fraudulent activity under [SEC Rule] 10(b)."
As I said, I would not be shocked (although I would be surprised) if Congress were to enact a law that goes beyond effectively overruling Newman and imposes insider trading liability on any person trading based on what she knew was non-public confidential information whether or not the person who had disclosed the information had received a personal benefit. Such a law, while it would to my regret cover the casual offenders I have discussed, would on balance be a positive one in that it would limit the unequal information accessible to certain traders and provide a more level playing field.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Here are two (ahem) differing views on yesterday's Second Circuit insider trading decision in United States v. Newman. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers are understandably happy at the ruling and contemptuous of Preet Bharara, dubbing him an Outside the Law Prosecutor. The Journal exaggerates the extent to which the case was an outlier under Second Circuit precedent and incorrectly states that "the prosecution is unlikely to be able to retry the case." The prosecution cannot retry the case, unless the full Second Circuit reverses the panel or the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case and overturns the Second Circuit.
Over at New Economic Perspectives, Professor Bill Black insists that the Second Circuit Makes Insider Trading the Perfect Crime. Black thinks Wall Street financial firms will enact sophisticated cut-out schemes in the wake of the opinion to give inside traders plausible deniability. He compares the fate of Newman and his co-defendant to that of Eric Garner and calls for a broken windows policing policy for Wall Street. Black's piece is outstanding, but in my view he underestimates the extent to which the Newman court was influenced by Supreme Court precedent and ignores the opinion's signals that the government needed to do a much better job of proving that the defendants knew about the tipper's fiduciary breach. As a matter of fact, in the typical insider trading case it is relatively easy to show such knowledge. That's what expert testimony and willful blindness instructions are for.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
The Second Circuit's decision in United States v. Newman is out. The jury instructions were erroneous and the evidence insufficient. The convictions of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasso are reversed and their cases have been remanded with instructions to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. Here is the holding in a nutshell:
We agree that the jury instruction was erroneous because we conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
As my editor, Ellen Podgor, noted last week (see here), the winning streak in insider trading cases of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York ended with the jury's acquittal of Rengan Rajaratnam, the younger brother of Raj Rajaratnam, who was convicted of insider trading in 2011 and sentenced to eleven years in prison.
The U.S. Attorney has done an excellent job in prosecuting insider trading, securing convictions by plea or trial of 81 of the 82 defendants whose cases have been concluded in the district court. The office has appropriately targeted primarily professional financial people who seek or provide insider information rather than those incidental offenders who by chance have received or provided insider tips and taken advantage of their knowledge. A few of these trial convictions, however, appear to be in jeopardy. At oral argument in a recent case the Second Circuit Court of Appeals seemed sympathetic to the contention that a trader may not be found guilty unless he knew that the original information came from a person who had received a benefit, and not only had violated a fiduciary duty of secrecy. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who presided over the Rajaratnam case, agreed with that contention and thereupon dismissed two of the three counts.
Whether the prospective Second Circuit ruling, if it comes, will make good public policy is another matter. Insider trading (which fifteen years ago some argued should not be a crime) is, or at least was, endemic to the industry. Presumably, the U. S. Attorney's successful prosecutions have had a positive step in putting the fear of prosecution in traders' minds. Such deterrent to a particularly amoral community seems necessary: a recent study demonstrated that twenty-four percent of the traders interviewed admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 million if they were assured they would not be caught (the actual percentage who would, I suspect, is much higher). See here.
The latest Rajaratnam case, indicted on the day before the statute of limitations expired, was apparently not considered a strong case by some prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office. See here and here. Indeed, jurors, who deliberated four hours, described the evidence as "no evidence, period" and asked "Where's the evidence?" That office nonetheless did not take this loss (and generally does not take other losses) well. It was less than gracious in losing, making a backhanded slap at Judge Buchwald, a respected generally moderate senior judge. A statement by the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara noted, "While we are disappointed with the verdict on the sole count that the jury was to consider, we respect the jury trial system . . . ." (Italics supplied.)
Southern District judges, generally out of deference to and respect for the U.S. Attorney's Office, whether appropriate or undue, rarely dismiss entire prosecutions or even counts brought by that office, even in cases where the generally pro-prosecution Second Circuit subsequently found no crimes. See here. It is refreshing to see a federal judge appropriately do her duty and not hesitate to dismiss legally or factually insufficient prosecutions.
Such judicial actions, when appropriate, are particularly necessary in today's federal system where the bar for indictment is dropping lower and lower. The "trial penalty" of a harsher sentence for those who lose at trial, the considerable benefits given to cooperating defendants from prosecutors and judges, and the diminution of aggressiveness from a white-collar bar composed heavily of big firm former federal prosecutors have all contributed to fewer defense challenges at trial and lessened the prosecutors' fear of losing, a considerable factor in the prosecutorial decision-making process. Acquittals (even of those who are guilty) are necessary for a balanced system of justice.
Lastly, it is nice to see a major victory by a comparatively young (43) defense lawyer, Daniel Gitner of Lankler, Siffert & Wohl, an excellent small firm (and a neighbor), in a profession still dominated by men in their sixties or seventies.
Friday, May 16, 2014
Here is an unusually sophisticated article about a white collar topic in today's NYTimes. The piece, by Floyd Norris, probes what are essentially debarment waivers obtained by many financial and brokerage institutions as part of their global deals with DOJ and SEC. A guilty plea or deferred prosecution agreement with DOJ, accompanied by an SEC fine and censure, in the past may have been a company's death knell. Now it is just another cost of doing business. Naturally, guilty pleas still look bad and companies want to avoid them. But there's a rather large difference between a short-term public relations nightmare (or even a long-term and expensive monitoring agreement) and a firm's demise. So when government officials say that no companies are too big to jail or too big to fail, it is important to understand the context of the particular global agreement in question. Because a company can't be jailed, and if the company is big and important enough, it won't be allowed to fail.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Rajat Gupta's convictions for securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. (See here). The decision should be a hit for future evidence casebooks as it provides detailed analysis of a host of different evidence rules - Rules 403, 801, 802, 803, and 804.
But what the decision summarily denies is the argument that the "wiretap authorizations were obtained in violation of Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, ... and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution." The Second Circuit notes that since Rajaratnam's challenges were rejected, "Gupta's Title III and constitutional challenges are thus foreclosed." Hopefully a higher Court will examine the use of wiretaps in such white collar cases.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
To the surprise of nobody I know, Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager, was convicted of insider trading last Thursday by a Southern District of New York jury. The evidence at trial was very strong. It demonstrated that Martoma had befriended two doctors advising two drug companies on the trial of an experimental drug, received confidential information from them about the disappointing result of the drug trial prior to the public announcement, and then had a 20-minute telephone conversation with Steven A. Cohen, the SAC chair, a day or so before Cohen ordered that SAC's positions in these companies be sold off. The purported monetary benefit to SAC, in gains and avoidance of loss, of the trades resulting from the inside information is about $275 million, suggesting that Martoma receive a sentence of over 15 years under the primarily amount-driven Sentencing Guidelines (although I expect the actual sentence will be considerably less).
Cohen is white-collar Public Enemy No. 1 to the Department of Justice, at least in its most productive white-collar office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District. That office has already brought monumental parallel criminal and civil cases against SAC, receiving a settlement of $1.8 billion, about a fifth of Cohen's reported personal net worth, but it has apparently not garnered sufficient evidence against Cohen to give it confidence that an indictment will lead to his conviction. It had granted a total "walk" -- a non-prosecution agreement -- to the two doctors whose testimony it felt it needed to convict Martoma, unusually lenient concessions by an office that almost always requires substantial (and often insubstantial) white-collar wrongdoers seeking a cooperation deal to plead to a felony. As an FBI agent told one of the doctor/co-conspirators, the doctors and Martoma were "grains of sand;" the government was after Cohen.
In an article in the New York Times last Friday, James B. Stewart, an excellent writer whose analyses I almost always agree with, asked a question many lawyers, including myself, have asked: why didn't Martoma cooperate with the government and give up Cohen in exchange for leniency? Mr. Stewart's answer was essentially that Martoma was unmarketable to the government because he would have been destroyed on cross-examination by revelation of his years-ago doctoring his Harvard Law School grades to attempt to secure a federal judicial clerkship and covering up that falsification by other document tampering and lying. Mr. Stewart quotes one lawyer as saying Martoma would be made "mincemeat" after defense cross-examination, another as saying he would be "toast," and a third as saying that without solid corroborating evidence, "his testimony would be of little use." See here.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Stewart and his three sources. The prosecution, I believe, would have welcomed Mr. Martoma to the government team in a New York minute -- assuming Martoma would have been able to provide believable testimony that Mr. Cohen was made aware of the inside information in that 20-minute conversation. When one is really hungry -- and the Department of Justice is really hungry for Steven A. Cohen -- one will eat the only food available, even if it's "mincemeat" and "toast." And there is certainly no moral question here; the government gave Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, a multiple murderer, a virtual pass to induce him to testify against John Gotti. Given the seemingly irrefutable direct, circumstantial and background evidence (including, specifically, the phone call, the fact that Cohen ordered the trades and reaped the benefit, and generally, whatever evidence from the civil and criminal cases against SAC is admissible against Cohen), testimony by Martoma to the effect he told Cohen, even indirectly or unspecifically, about the information he received from the doctors would, I believe, have most likely led to Cohen's indictment.
I have no idea why Martoma did not choose to cooperate, if, as I believe, he had the opportunity. "Cooperation," as it is euphemistically called, would require from Martoma a plea of guilty and, very likely in view of the amount of money involved, a not insubstantial prison term (although many years less than he will likely receive after his conviction by trial). Perhaps Martoma, who put on a spirited if unconvincing defense after being caught altering his law school transcript, is just a fighter who does not easily surrender or, some would say, "face reality," even if the result of such surrender would be a comparatively short jail sentence. (In a way, that choice is refreshing, reminding me of the days defense lawyers defended more than pleaded and/or cooperated.) Perhaps Martoma felt cooperation, a condition of which is generally full admission of all prior crimes and bad acts, would reveal other wrongs and lead to financial losses by him and his family beyond those he faces in this case. Perhaps he felt loyalty -- which it has been demonstrated is a somewhat uncommon trait among those charged with insider trading -- to Cohen, who has reportedly paid his legal fees and treated him well financially (and perhaps Martoma hopes will continue to do so), or perhaps to others he would have to implicate.
And perhaps -- perhaps -- the truth is that in his conversation with Cohen, he did not tell Cohen either because of caution while talking on a telephone, a deliberate effort to conceal from Cohen direct inside information, or another reason, and he is honest enough not to fudge the truth to please the eager prosecutors, as some cooperators do. In such a case his truthful testimony would have been unhelpful to prosecutors bent on charging Cohen. That neutral testimony or information, if proffered, which the skeptical prosecutors would find difficult to believe, would at best get him ice in this very cold wintertime. Lastly, however unlikely, perhaps Martoma believed or still believes he is, or conceivably actually is, innocent.
In any case, it is not necessarily too late for Martoma to change his mind and get a benefit from cooperation. The government would, I believe, be willing to alter favorably its sentencing recommendation if Martoma provides information or testimony leading to or supporting the prosecution of Cohen. Indeed, I believe the government would ordinarily jump at a trade of evidence against Cohen for a recommendation of leniency (or less harshness), even if Martoma is now even less attractive as a witness than before he was convicted (although far more attractive than if he had testified as to his innocence). However, the five-year statute of limitations for the July 2008 criminal activity in this matter has apparently run, and an indictment for substantive insider trading against Cohen for these trades is very probably time-barred.
To be sure, federal prosecutors have attempted -- not always successfully (see United States v. Grimm; see here) -- imaginative solutions to statute of limitations problems. And, if the government can prove that Cohen had committed even a minor insider trading conspiratorial act within the past five years (and there are other potential cooperators, like recently-convicted SAC manager Michael Steinberg, out there), the broad conspiracy statutes might well allow Martoma's potential testimony, however dated, to support a far-ranging conspiracy charge (since the statute of limitations for conspiracy is satisfied by a single overt act within the statutory period). In such a case, Martoma may yet get some considerable benefit from cooperating, however belatedly it came about.
Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Gretchen Morgenson has another one of her outstanding articles, Earnings, But Without The Bad Stuff, in today's NY Times. The piece explores some unintended effects of the SEC's Regulation G, which "allows companies to use non-traditional metrics in financial reports, but only if they present generally accepted accounting measures [GAAP] alongside so that investors can compare the two." According to Morgenson, and Jack Cieselski of Charm City's R.G. Associates, more companies are using Regulation G to put forward "[m]anagement's recommended measures." This in turn spurs other companies to do the same in order to stay competitive. My gut response is: "So what?" As long as the company is disclosing fully accurate figures according to GAAP, what do I care if they want to present alternative numbers alongside? After all, companies are still prohibited from presenting false or misleading non-GAAP figures, and the SEC has gone after companies who do this.
Friday, October 25, 2013
According to the New York Times (Deal Book), the Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced its own $4 billion dollar settlement with JPMorgan Chase, covering the bank's sale of mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the period (2005-2007) leading up to the financial crisis. FHFA's original suit alleged that JPMorgan Chase, and predecessor entities Bear Stearns and WAMU, sold mortgage-backed securities to Fannie and Freddie without sufficiently full disclosure of their risky nature. This FHFA settlement was supposed to be part of the broader $13 billion dollar tentative settlement that has been the subject of so much public speculation in the past week. Apparently FHFA got tired of waiting for the broader deal to be finalized. Here is the signed settlement agreement and FHFA press release, posted on FHFA's web site. Under the terms of this particular settlement agreement, JPMorgan Chase pointedly does NOT admit "any liability or wrongdoing whatsoever, including, but not limited to, any liability or wrongdoing with respect to any of the allegations that were or could have been raised in the Actions." Further, "[t]he Parties agree that this Agreement is the result of a compromise within the provisions of the Federal Rules of Evidence, and any similar statutes or rules, and shall not be used or admitted in any proceeding for any purpose including, but not limited to, as evidence of liability or wrongdoing by any JPMorgan Defendant." Deal Book reports that the broader non-FHFA portion of the $13 billion tentative settlement includes fine payments "to prosecutors in California." I had not heard this before today. Hard to believe that any fines will be paid to prosecutors by JPMorgan Chase unless such fines are part of a final agreement to shut down the ongoing federal criminal investigation being run out of California.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
The New York Times' Gretchen Morgenson should be declared a national treasure. She continues to write about the financial crisis, and legal and regulatory issues related to the crisis, at a level far above most of her contemporaries. In today's New York Times she explains the administrative law process through which the SEC brings many of its enforcement actions against individuals. The Administrative Law Judges deciding the cases are SEC employees and appellate reversals are rare. Dodd-Frank expanded the kinds of cases that can be heard by the ALJs. All of this is known to the securities bar, but not to otherwise intelligent and informed lay readers, because hardly anyone ever writes about it. Morgenstern's story is here.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
1. Barring a miracle, the government will win.
2. The law on corporate criminal liability may be unfair, but it has been around since 1909.
3. The government has to prove that: a) at least one SAC employee committed securities/wire fraud (several have already pled guilty); b) the employee was acting within the actual or apparent scope of his/her authority/employment at the time; and c) the employee intended, even in part, to benefit the corporation.
4. If the government can prove the above elements it will win, even if the employees who engaged in securities fraud/insider trading violated SAC's insider trading compliance policies or Steven Cohen's direct orders.
5. Give credit where credit is due. This is a well-crafted speaking indictment. Preet Bharara alleged more than he will technically need to prove at trial. He charged that SAC created an atmosphere in which insider trading was bound to flourish. Why did he do this? First, to make his case in the court of public opinion. Second, to help prevent jury nullification. Third, to rebut a defense that the guilty employees were acting against the interests of the company. Here is the SAC Indictment.
6. The attempt to obtain all of SAC's profits through criminal forfeiture allegations is, to put it mildly, a stretch. Significantly, the government did not try to seize funds through civil forfeiture in conjunction with the indictment. This was only partly to protect innocent third parties. The government also did not want to see its resources diverted, give up unnecessary discovery, or embarrass itself.
7. Like John Dowd in the Rajaratnam case, Ted Wells is in the catbird seat. No one in the criminal defense bar expects him to win. If he loses it will in no way dim his reputation. If he wins, he achieves true legendary status. Conversely, no AUSA worth his/her salt can afford to lose this case.
8. How to defend this case? By arguing that all the employees who pled guilty were greedy sorts who were in it 100% for themselves. They could not have intended to benefit the company, because the company made it so clear, time and again, that insider trading actually was bad for the company. Hence the key importance of the indictment's allegations that SAC's compliance policy was essentially a sham.
9. Insider trading law may be stupid, but, contrary to popular myth, is not for the most part vague or confusing to the professionals who have spent their careers in the securities industry.
10. When an employee vocalizes his reluctance to say more over the telephone, concomitantly referencing his "compliance" training, it's a pretty safe bet he knows insider trading is illegal.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Yesterday, in United States v. Goffer, an insider trading/securities fraud criminal appeal, the Second Circuit again refused to alter a standard conscious avoidance jury instruction to comport more fully with the Supreme Court's opinion in Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 131 S.Ct. 2060, 2068-72 (2011). According to Judge Wesley, Global-Tech was not "designed to alter the substantive law. Global-Tech simply describes existing case law." The instruction given by the trial court "properly imposed the two requirements imposed by the Global-Tech decision." Moreover, Appellant Kimelman's request "that the district court insert the word 'reckless' into a list of mental states that were insufficient" was unnecessary, because "Global-Tech makes clear that instructions (such as those in this case) that require a defendant to take 'deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing' are inherently inconsistent 'with a reckless defendant...who merely knows of a substantial and unjustified risk of such wrongdoing."
I don't know. Sounds a little circular to me. According to Global-Tech, willful blindness has "an appropriately limited scope that surpasses recklessness and negligence." Why not just say it squarely in a jury instruction? The problem here is that district courts are generally afraid to alter standard jury instructions in light of emerging case law. And appellate courts are generally reluctant to vacate major securities fraud convictions unless the jury instructions are blatantly improper. The Goffer opinion can be found here.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
It's a relatively short opinion issued by the Second Circuit, and 24 of the 29 pages pertain to a summary of the holding, facts, and the wiretap order used in this case. For background on the issues raised, the briefs (including amici briefs), see here. Judge Cabranes wrote the majority opinion, joined by judges Hon. Sack and Hon. Carney. A summary of the holding states:
In affirming his judgment of conviction, we conclude that: (1) the District Court properly analyzed the alleged misstatements and omissions in the government’s wiretap application under the analytical framework prescribed by the Supreme Court in Franks; (2) the alleged misstatements and omissions in the wiretap application did not require suppression, both because, contrary to the District Court’s conclusion, the government did not omit information about the SEC investigation of Rajaratnam with "reckless disregard for the truth," and because, as the District Court correctly concluded, all of the alleged misstatements and omissions were not "material"; and (3) the jury instructions on the use of inside information satisfy the "knowing possession" standard that is the law of this Circuit.
Some highlights and commentary:
1. The Second Circuit goes further than the district court in supporting the government's actions with respect to the wiretap order.
2. The Second Circuit agrees with the lower court that a Franks hearing is the standard to be used with a wiretap order where there is a claim of misstatements and omissions in the government's wiretap application. The Second Circuit notes that the Supreme Court has "narrowed the circumstances in which ...[courts] apply the exclusionary rule." But the question here is whether the Supreme Court has really addressed the wiretap question in this context and whether a cert petition will be forthcoming with this issue.
3. Although the Second Circuit uses the same basic test in reviewing the wiretap, it finds that "the District Court erred in applying the 'reckless disregard' standard because the court failed to consider the actual states of mind of the wiretap applicants." The Second Circuit then goes a step further and finds that omission of evidence does not mean that the wiretap applicant acted with "reckless disregard for the truth."
4. The court states that "the inference is particularly inappropriate where the government comes forward with evidence indicating that the omission resulted from nothing more than negligence, or that the omission was the result of considered and reasonable judgment that the information was not necessary to the wiretap application." - This dicta provides the government with strong language in future cases when they just happen to negligently leave something out of a wiretap application.
5. Does the CSX Transportation decision by the Supreme Court call into question Second Circuit precedent? The Second Circuit is holding firm with its prior decisions. But will the Supreme Court decide to take this on, and if so, will it take a different position.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has announced an end to the SEC's blanket "does not admit or deny" settlement agreement policy. In a select number of cases involving "widespread harm to investors" or "egregious intentional misconduct" the Commission will now insist on admissions of wrongdoing on the part of civil defendants who want to settle. The blanket policy was previously eroded, in January 2012, in cases where settling defendants had already pled guilty to related criminal charges. Yesterday's Reuters story is here. Todays Thomson Reuters News & Insight analysis is here.
I strongly suspect that the tangible impact of the policy shift will be minimal. Since almost no SEC civil defendants can afford to admit wrongdoing as a condition of settlement (except in cases where a guilty plea occurred or is anticipated), we can expect the instances in which the SEC will insist on such admissions to be extremely rare. And those very rare cases will result in trials.
But the intangible impact of annually insisting on admissions of wrongdoing in three or four cases may be greater over time. First, the trials, though few in number, should be well-covered by the media. Second, the SEC will regain some much needed respect for its toughness. Third, going to trial and airing the dirty laundry accumulated by malefactors of great wealth should have salutary educational and public policy benefits. Fourth, we may actually see some deterrent effect from all this, so that companies don't automatically view SEC settlements as a cost of doing business.
We will revisit this issue as the new policy is implemented.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
A recent publication in the Case Western Reserve Law Review by Dain C. Donelson and Robert A.
Prentice, Scienter Pleading and Rule 10b-5: Empirical Analysis and Behavioral Implications. From the abstract:
Pleading requirements are the keys to the courthouse. Nowhere is this more true than with rule 10b-5 class action securities fraud claims. Provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 impose special pleading burdens upon plaintiffs regarding the scienter element and bar them from discovery when defendants file a motion to dismiss. This Article begins with a doctrinal history of the scienter element of a rule 10b-5 claim that indicates that many key legal questions remain unsettled and that application of legal rules to specific factual allegations regarding a particular type of defendant—external auditors—is extraordinarily muddled. To determine whether the impression arising from this extensive but nonsystematic examination of the case law is accurate, we also empirically examine rule 10b-5 claims against auditors and confirm that few facts are consistently viewed by the courts as indicating the presence (or absence) of scienter. This lack of clarity in the law and its application makes it difficult for either plaintiffs or defendants to evaluate the settlement value of claims. Furthermore, the law’s excessive vagueness affords judges virtually untrammeled discretion. The literature of behavioral psychology and related fields indicates that excessive discretion exacerbates problems that arise from unconscious judicial bias.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Announcement from the Fordham Law Moot Court Board
Each spring, Fordham University School of Law hosts the Irving R. Kaufman Memorial Securities Law Moot Court Competition. Held in honor of Chief Judge Kaufman, a Fordham Alumnus who served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Kaufman Competition has a rich tradition
of bringing together complex securities law issues, talented student advocates, and top legal minds.
This year’s Kaufman Competition will take place on March 22-24, 2013. The esteemed final round panel includes Judge Paul J. Kelly, Jr., of the Tenth Circuit; Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., of the Sixth Circuit; Judge Jane Richards Roth, of the Third Circuit; and Commissioner Troy A. Paredes, of
the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. The competition will focus on two issues that arise in the fallout of Ponzi schemes: whether the “stockbroker safe harbor” of the Bankruptcy Code applies to Ponzi scheme operators, and the application of SLUSA, which was recently granted cert by the Supreme Court.
We are currently soliciting practitioners and academics to judge oral argument rounds and grade competition briefs. No securities law experience is required to participate and CLE credit is available.
Information about the Kaufman Competition and an online Judge Registration Form is available on our website, www.law.fordham.edu/kaufman. Please contact Michael N. Fresco, Kaufman Editor, at KaufmanMC@law.fordham.edu or (561) 707-8328 with any questions.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
As the New York Times reports (see here), once again a trader has apparently taken an enormous bet with his employer's money and lost, thereby costing his employer, a small Connecticut brokerage firm, millions of dollars and threatening its continued existence. David Miller, described by the Times as a "journeyman" with a career that includes stints at some of Wall Street's less distinguished firms, bought roughly $1 billion of Apple stock hours before Apple was to announce its earnings for his employer Rochdale Securities in what the firm's president called an "unauthorized trade." When the announced earnings were below expectations, Apple's stock price fell and the firm was then forced to sell the securities at a considerable loss.
I have no idea whether Miller's trading was a calculated effort of his own to secure a huge gain for his employer and perhaps a corresponding large bonus for himself, an execution of a strategy approved by supervisors, a ministerial error resulting from a "fat finger" (as Rochdale has reportedly told potential financial rescuers) or something else. However, this situation, along with better-known recent examples of purportedly unauthorized trades which have caused massive losses (some of which, potentially at least, might eventually be borne by taxpayers) lead me to wonder whether there should be a criminal statute prohibiting "reckless" trading of other people's money. Many statutes, generally state, prohibit reckless behavior which causes, or just puts people at risk of, death or physical harm, including in New York reckless assault, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. I wonder whether just as the law criminalizes reckless conduct which may cause physical harm, it should criminalize reckless conduct which may cause monetary harm. Such a statute might criminalize conduct when one "takes a substantial and unjustifiable risk in making trades with money other than his own and that such risk is a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a reasonable person would observe in that position." (Cf. N.Y. Penal Law Section 15.05).
The bonus system which gives great incentives to hugely successful trading by one whose own funds are not put at risk (at least directly) and lesser disincentives to hugely unsuccessful trading encourages taking long-shots. Perhaps that is the way the markets should work. However, contrary to my visceral feeling that governments enact too many penal statutes, I believe a prohibition of reckless trading which results in severe financial loss might be worthy of consideration.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The sentencing is today at 2:00 PM Southern District of New York Time. (And is there really any other time in the Universe?)
As I noted on Monday, Gupta's Guidelines Range, according to the Government and the Probation Office, is 97-121 months.That's a Level 30. Gupta's attorneys put Gupta's Guidelines Range at 41-51 months. That's a Level 22. The different calculations are based on different views of the gain and/or loss realized and/or caused by Gupta. Gupta's attorneys are seeking a downward variance and asking for probation, with rigorous community service in Rwanda. Serving a sentence in Rwanda is not as strange as it may sound on first hearing. After all, criminal defendants in Louisiana regularly do time in Angola.
But seriously, lawyers and germs, there is a practice pointer in here somewhere. Practitioners naturally strive to obtain the lowest possible Guidelines Range as a jumping off point for the downward variance. It is psychologically easier for a judge to impose a probationary sentence when the Guidelines Range is low to begin with. It is legally easier as well, because the greater the variance from the Guidelines, the greater the judicially articulated justification must be.
But too many lawyers push the envelope in their Guidelines arguments, thereby risking appellate reversal on procedural grounds. This is a particular danger when the judge is already favorably disposed toward the defendant and looking for ways to help him. Failure to correctly calculate the Guidelines is a clear procedural error. (Some of the federal circuits try to get around Booker, Gall, and Kimbrough by setting up rigorous procedural tests. The Fourth Circuit is the most notorious outlier in this regard.) Lawyers must be on guard against the possibly pyrrhic and costly victory of an incorrectly calculated Guideline range, followed by probation. One solution is to have the court rule on alternative theories. "This is the Guidelines Range. These are my reasons for downward variance. Even if the Guidelines Range was really at X, as the Government argues, I would still depart to Y for the same and/or these additional reasons." If the judge already likes your client, getting him or her to do this is often an easy task.
Of course, Judge Rakoff needs no instructions in this regard. One of our ablest and sharpest jurists, and a leading Guidelines critic, he will attempt to correctly calculate the Guidelines Range in an intellectually honest manner and will downwardly (or upwardly) vary as he damn well sees fit, with ample articulation.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Rajat Gupta is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Jed Rakoff on Wednesday. The Rajat Gupta Sentencing Memo filed last week by his attorneys is an outstanding work of its kind, and the Government's Sentencing Memo in U.S. v. Gupta is also quite good.
Gupta's Guidelines Range, according to the Government and the Probation Office, is 97-121 months. Gupta's attorneys, led by Gary Naftalis, put Gupta's Guidelines Range at 41-51 months. The different calculations appear to be based entirely on different views of the gain and/or loss realized and/or caused by Gupta. Key issues are whether Judge Rakoff should include the acquitted conduct in the loss calculations (which he is allowed but not required to do) and whether the gain should be confined to Gupta and his co-conspirators, as opposed to other investors. Gupta's attorneys are arguing for probation, with a condition of rigorous community service in New York or Rwanda.
My guess is that, however he gets there, Judge Rakoff will impose a prison sentence of 3 to 6 years. The judge is a well-known critic of the Guidelines and Gupta has apparently led a life of extraordinary kindness and good works. On the other hand, Gupta is an enormously wealthy member of the financial elite to whom much has been given. He stands convicted of insider trading, which everybody on Wall Street knows is illegal. This was not a case in which ambiguous admitted conduct did or did not violate the outer edges of the insider trading laws. This was a case in which Gupta either tipped clearly confidential, proprietary inside information or he didn't. The jury has ruled that he did, at least with respect to four of the six charged counts. Judge Rakoff must and will accept that verdict. I believe that Judge Rakoff will see it as his judicial duty to send, through Gupta's sentence, a message of general deterrence.