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.