Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund billionaire at the center of one of the largest insider trading cases in history, was sentenced Thursday to 11 years in prison.
It was the longest prison term ever for insider trading, according to the Justice Department, and was the culmination of a years-long federal probe of cheating in the stock market.
But it was also substantially less than what the prosecution had sought against the man it called “a billion-dollar force of deception and corruption on Wall Street.”
The 54-year-old Rajaratnam, who headed Galleon Management, was convicted in May on 14 counts of conspiracy and securities fraud for illegally using inside information to trade in stocks such as Goldman Sachs, Google, Hilton and Intel. The trading generated profits or avoided losses of $72 million, the government estimated.
The case pulled back the curtain on illicit trafficking in corporate secrets that involved people at the highest echelons of the financial world and gave hedge funds a competitive edge. The 11-year sentence reflects a trend toward tougher treatment of insider-trading convicts, said former federal prosecutor Robert W. Ray.
Less than a decade ago, it would have been unusual for a defendant in a major insider trading case to get more than two years, Ray said.
Rajaratnam’s crimes “reflect a virus in our business culture that needs to be eradicated,” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Holwell said at the sentencing in New York.
“It is a sad conclusion to what once seemed to be a glittering story,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a news release.
Bharara said he hoped the case served as a wake-up call.
“Privileged professionals do not get a free pass to pursue profit through corrupt means,” he said.
Rajaratnam was ordered to forfeit $53.4 million and pay a fine of $10 million. Out on $100 million bail, he is scheduled to report for prison on Nov. 28.
The Justice Department opposed allowing Rajaratnam to stay out of prison while he appeals, saying he might flee to his native Sri Lanka or some other country.He “would have access to tens of millions of dollars by the mere touch of a keystroke,” the government said in a court filing.
Rajaratnam will appeal his conviction, Kathryn Holmes Johnson, a spokeswoman for his legal team, said by e-mail.
The Associated Press reported from New York that defense lawyers asked that Rajaratnam be allowed to go to the medical facility at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina, where Bernard Madoff is serving his 150-year sentence for running a Ponzi scheme that cheated thousands of people out of billions of dollars.
Though Rajaratnam did not testify at his trial, the prosecution made extensive use of wiretaps of his conversations with associates.
According to the government, Rajaratnam gathered inside information about pending corporate deals and earnings announcements from an array of tipsters, including a Goldman Sachs board member, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and an insider at the Moody’s credit rating agency.
To pay for inside information, Rajaratnam wired money to offshore accounts in phony names, the government said. He lied under oath when called in for questioning by the Securities and Exchange Commission, told others to use prepaid cellphones and created false e-mails as cover stories to disguise the basis for his trades, the government said.
The Justice Department had urged the court to sentence Rajaratnam to at least 19 years and seven months and as much as 24 years and five months. Such a term was warranted to “provide just and fair punishment for perhaps the worst insider trading offender” caught to date “and deter others,” the Justice Department wrote.
Defense lawyers had countered that the sentence the government sought “would ensure Mr. Rajaratnam’s death in prison — a fate ordinarily reserved only for offenders who have caused the most grave, irreversible, and demonstrable harm to others.”
Rajaratnam “suffers from a constellation of serious and degenerative illnesses which require intensive ongoing medical attention and which even under the best of circumstances will almost certainly shorten his life considerably,” they said in a court filing.
In determining the sentence, Holwell cited Rajaratnam’s need for a kidney transplant and his advanced diabetes, the AP reported. The judge also credited Rajaratnam’s charity work, which he called “the defendant’s responsiveness to and care for the less privileged.”
Asked if he wished to speak, Rajaratnam said only, “No, thank you, your honor,” according to AP.
The insider trading case was the most prominent of its kind since Ivan Boesky was convicted a generation ago.
Rajaratnam will join a list of high-profile white-collar financial figures sent to prison, including former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, former WorldCom executive Bernard Ebbers and Ponzi scheme mastermind Madoff .
The federal system offers no possibility of parole and only limited credit for good behavior, so it is likely that Rajaratnam will be locked up for at least nine years, said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in criminal sentencing.
Berman said he was surprised that Rajaratnam’s sentence “was as low as it was.” As a deterrent, “there’s reasons to worry this isn’t going to move the needle much,” Berman said.
Sentences for insider trading tend to be significantly lighter than the punishments meted out in major accounting frauds, said Michael Perino, a professor at the St. John’s University School of Law. That might be because the economic impact of insider trading is more diffuse and impersonal than the fallout from accounting frauds such as Enron’s, in which employees lost jobs and particular investors lost huge sums of money, Perino said.
WorldCom’s Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years. Enron’s Skilling was originally sentenced to 24 years but is awaiting resentencing based on an appeal.