Monday, October 19, 2009

Wall Street Meets "The Wire"

Guest Blogger - Gail Shifman

In the 2009 sequel to the 1987 movie, Wall Street, one expects to see Michael Douglas’ Gekko talking on his cell phone on his way to a meeting in Baltimore where technology superstar and investor hottie, Tweetz, has its headquarters. The phone conversation is worth millions. Those on the phone know that to win you have to risk loss.

Welcome to the new reality: Wall Street meets The Wire.

The arrest and charging of Hedge Fund Managers, Fortune 500 Executives and a Management Consulting Director in the $20 Million Insider Trading case, the largest ever charged criminally, is just the beginning, says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The arrests followed more than two years of investigation involving informants, cooperating witnesses, consensual monitoring and wiretaps on at least four phone lines. It is believed to be the first time that prosecutors have used a wiretap in an insider trading case. Bloomberg reports that federal investigators are now poised to file charges against a wider array of insider-trading networks, some linked to the criminal allegations against Rajaratnam and the other defendants. They report that some probes, like the one that focused on Rajaratnam, rely on wiretaps and that others stem from a secret Securities and Exchange Commission data-mining project set up to pinpoint clusters of people who make similar well-timed stock investments.

Beyond the initial issue of whether investigating Wall Street insiders with law enforcement tactics typically reserved for the Mob, gangs and terrorists is a wise use of resources, it also raises many legal issues quite distinct from those traditionally litigated in white collar cases. Wiretap litigation is a complex, multi-layered process. Questions arise early in the case regarding the discovery production obligations of the government. Following a review of the many months of electronic interceptions, questions will arise regarding whether the government properly sought, minimized, maintained and sealed the recordings. Did they seek proper extensions for the continued interception of the electronic recordings? And, of course, was there probable cause to seek the interceptions?

In this case, however, the legal issue regarding the use of wiretaps that immediately jump to the surface is the question about whether The Federal Wiretap Act specifically authorizes the interception of electronic recordings for alleged security fraud violations (Title 15 U.S.C. §§ 78j(b) & 78ff and Title 17 C.F.R. §§ 240.10b-5 & 240.10b5-2) as charged in the criminal complaint. These statutes are not specifically enumerated in Title III, 18 U.S.C. § 2516, which provides the authorization for electronic interception. Wire and mail fraud (18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 & 1343) anti-trust violations, money laundering and numerous other offenses are listed, but not securities fraud. Chances are good that the government could have charged these defendants with wire fraud but were they scared away by the fact that the Skilling, Weyrauch, and Black cases are on review before the Supreme Court? One would think (hope?) that the government has preliminarily determined that section 2516 provides them with the authorization they need lest they find themselves licking self-inflicted wounds.

Assuming they overcome this hurdle, the wiretap issue that likely will be the most heavily litigated, and potentially the most fruitful for the defendants, will be a motion to suppress the wiretaps because the government lacked ‘requisite necessity’ for the lawful use of electronic recordings . Electronic surveillance is one of the most intrusive means of investigation. Indeed, the inherent intrusiveness of wiretapping is the cornerstone of the so-called "necessity requirement." As the Supreme Court stated in its landmark case which led to the enactment of the current wiretapping statutes, "[f]ew threats to liberty exist which are greater than that posed by the use of eavesdropping devices." Berger v. United States, 388 U.S. 41, 63 (1967). The Court in Berger went on to recognize that although wiretapping is a more expedient form of investigation, expediency in law enforcement must ultimately yield to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment "before the innermost secrets of one's home or office are invaded." Id.

In response to the concerns and standards enunciated in Berger, Congress enacted the electronic surveillance statutes, Title III, 18 U.S.C. § 2510 et seq. Congress mandated that the government make their wiretap applications upon oath, accompanied by [A] full and complete statement as to whether or not other investigative procedures have been tried and failed or why they reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous. 18 U.S.C. § 2518(1)(c).

Title 18 U.S.C. § 2518(3)(c) provides that a court issuing a wiretap authorization order must determine whether normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous. This "necessity requirement" obligates the government to set forth a full and complete statement of specific circumstances explaining why traditional investigative techniques were insufficient or the application must be denied. In determining the sufficiency of an affidavit, a reviewing court must ensure that the issuing court properly performed [its] function and did not 'serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police'. The government is not under an obligation to exhaust all alternative means of investigation in satisfying the necessity requirement but, neither should it be able to ignore avenues of investigation that appear both fruitful and cost-effective.

Given that the government had three co-conspirators, including one as early as January 2006, acting as informants and cooperating witnesses, and that these individuals had unfettered access to Rajaratnam and others involved in the alleged conspiracies, the question arises whether the government deliberately stalled this investigation and actively resisted utilizing normal investigative techniques, hoping to induce the court into believing that only a wiretap could succeed. Were deliberate decisions made by the government not to pursue avenues which would have been fruitful, in its effort to persuade the court that it had no alternative but to seek a wiretap? Given my experience in wiretap litigation, I suspect that the government had the means through traditional, cost effective, and innovative methods to uncover the alleged conspiracies. Through the use of their informants and cooperating witnesses, data mining and analysis, trap and trace and pen register analysis and sometimes even through trash covers (yes, combing through the garbage), it is likely that the conspiracies could have been revealed and prosecuted.


Prosecutions, SEC, Securities | Permalink

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I would be surprised if the government hadn't used any and all other investigative techniques prior to attempting to obtain evidence via a wiretap. Besides the expense of maintaining a wire, the work normally required to document the justification for one, including the failure of traditional investigative techniques, is extensive and I have never met an agent (or a supervisor) who would go to the time, trouble and expense of one unless absolutely needed for a successful case. If an informant had the access to avoid one, a wire would be avoided. In most cases, the informant could only offer enough to justify the wire but not provide the requisite information needed for a successful prosecution.

Posted by: Kit | Oct 23, 2009 7:42:39 AM

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