The long-running federal crackdown on insider trading took a major leap Wednesday, as authorities announced a slew of charges against hedge funds, analysts and traders.
The government accused those charged of forming a trading ring that netted $78 million in illicit profits, most of it based on advance word about computer-maker Dell’s quarterly financial results. An unnamed employee in Dell’s investor relations department leaked financial secrets, the government said.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges against Diamondback Capital Management, based in Stamford, Conn., and Level Global Investors, based in hedge-fund capital Greenwich, Conn., and against seven individuals.
Level Global netted $72.6 million of illegal gains trading in securities of Dell and another company, Nvidia, the SEC said. About $53 million of that was tied to information about one quarterly earnings announcement in August 2008, the SEC said.
The Justice Department announced criminal charges in the case Wednesday, citing seven individuals, three of whom have pleaded guilty.
At a Manhattan news conference, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said that insider trading has become “rampant and routine.” The latest conspiracy painted “a stunning portrait of organized corruption on a grand scale,” he said, adding that authority figures at several investment firms encouraged the lawbreaking.
The secretive and often lucrative hedge fund business owes part of its success to basic cheating, the government says.
“When you have the answer sheet beforehand, it’s pretty hard not to ace the test,” said Janice K. Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York office.
The individuals charged by the SEC and Justice Department included Jon Horvath, 42, a technology research analyst in New York. A person familiar with the case said that Horvath has been employed by Sigma Capital, an affiliate of SAC Capital, a giant hedge fund manager. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because SAC was not named in Wednesday’s action.
Horvath “caused insider trades at his firm that resulted in approximately $1.4 million of illicit gains,” the SEC said.
SAC Capital spokesman Jonathan Gasthalter said that the firm is continuing to cooperate with the government investigation but declined to comment further.
Defendants in the overlapping civil and criminal actions included Anthony Chiasson, 38, a founding partner at Level Global; Spyridon Adondakis, 40, who was an analyst at Level Global; Sanheep Goyal, 39, who was a manager of corporate planning at Dell before entering the investment business; Todd Newman, 47, who was a portfolio manager at Diamondback; Jesse Tortora, 34, who was an analyst at Diamondback; and Danny Kuo, 36, who has worked at Whittier Trust and for Merrill Lynch and J.P. Morgan Securities.
The Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed guilty pleas by Adondakis, Goyal and Tortora.
“This is by now a sadly familiar story, but no less disturbing to those who believe that everyone ought to play by the same set of rules,” Bharara said in a statement.
Dell spokesman David Frink said Wednesday that “if the allegations are accurate, the action was a clear violation of Dell’s policy regarding disclosure of material, non-public information.”
Horvath’s attorney, Steven R. Peikin, said by e-mail that his client “has done nothing wrong, and the charges brought against him today will be shown to be meritless. Throughout a more-than 15-year career as a respected investment analyst, Jon Horvath has conducted himself with honesty and integrity.”
Diamondback sent a letter to investors saying that Tortora resigned from the firm in April 2010 and that Newman was placed on leave the following November, after the firm was searched by investigators. Diamondback said it has been cooperating with the government and that Wednesday’s actions “are an important step towards putting this matter behind us.”
The SEC said it did not know of any lawyer representing Kuo. Lawyers or spokesmen for other defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
Coming on top of the Galleon case, Wednesday’s charges reflect “systemic dishonesty” and “a deeply embedded level of corruption,” said Robert Khuzami, the SEC’s director of enforcement.
The defendants include some of the largest and most sophisticated hedge funds in the country, Khuzami said. “These are not low-level employees succumbing to temptation by seizing a chance opportunity,” he said. “These are sophisticated players who built a corrupt network to systematically and methodically obtain and exploit illegal inside information again and again at the expense of law-abiding investors and the integrity of the markets.”
Bharara said the alleged scheme involved a circle of friends who regularly bartered information. If the charges are true, they show how much mileage investors can get out of an information pipeline to a single company.
The evidence used in this investigation included telephone intercepts and other recorded conversations, part of the repertoire of investigative tools the government has brought to bear in a series of insider trading prosecutions.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has now charged 63 individuals with insider trading during its crackdown, and 56 of them have been convicted. The sprawling effort has been known as “Operation Perfect Hedge.”
“If you are engaged in insider trading,” the FBI’s Fedarcyk said, “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.
In one of the August 2008 e-mails the government quoted, Horvath allegedly said, “[T]he data is second hand but this contact was correct in the last two quarters.”