Securities regulators yesterday won court approval to freeze the assets of a Hong Kong business and its owner, accusing them of trading in the stocks of at least a dozen companies using information they may have gained by hacking into computer networks to view forthcoming news releases.
U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. in New York imposed a temporary restraining order against Blue Bottle Ltd. and its owner Matthew C. Stokes at the urging of lawyers from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Agency officials asserted in a court filing that the defendants reaped more than $2.7 million in profits through illegal trading over the past two months.
The SEC's lawsuit is part of a broader effort to stanch the flow of leaks that privilege a small group of insiders over average investors. Enforcement chief Linda Chatman Thomsen said last month that cracking down on insider trading is among her top priorities. In recent weeks, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) have pressed the agency to step up its attacks on insider trading, particularly involving hedge funds and private-equity investors who seek tips that help them get advance notice of significant corporate announcements.
SEC lawyers are continuing to investigate how Blue Bottle and Stokes may have obtained the information and whether they used it to trade in still more stocks. The defendants tampered with computer networks or with protected areas of Web sites that contained data about "imminent news releases and traded on the basis of such non-public information," according to court papers.
Among the Blue Bottle trades in question in the agency's complaint are transactions last month involving the stock of Arlington defense contractor CACI International. Blue Bottle made a $527,158 profit after a series of trades in the days before CACI lowered its revenue and per-share earnings guidance for the year in an announcement after the market closed Jan. 17, the SEC said.
Other companies in which regulators said Blue Bottle traded include AllianceBernstein Holding of New York; BJ's Wholesale Club of Natick, Mass.; Odyssey Healthcare of Dallas; RealNetworks of Seattle; and Symantec of Cupertino, Calif.
Blue Bottle and Stokes, which court papers said have offices in London and Dubai, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Blue Bottle made its trades using an online brokerage in Greenwich, Conn., and a bank account in Nicosia, Cyprus, the SEC said. The judge ordered both sides to appear for a hearing next week.
In court papers, SEC lawyer Douglas C. McAllister said he had tried to reach Blue Bottle and the person claiming to be Stokes, but it appeared that people connected to the trades were trying to hide their contact information and location.
The Blue Bottle case is similar to a 2005 complaint in which regulators sued an Estonian financial services company and two of its employees for using a software program known as a "spider" to steal more than 360 confidential press releases from the clients of the news release service Business Wire. The Estonian company, Lohmus Haavel & Viisemann, and its employees reaped nearly $8 million in profits, according to court papers.
"These are important cases," said Kenneth R. Lench, an assistant director of enforcement at the SEC. "People need to know that the playing field is as level as possible and where we find them we're going to bring them."