On March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains. SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal). The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows: Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company. In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters. That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues. Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove. Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options. In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31. Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. Read More
In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.
The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors. In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell. To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More
A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion. In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed. The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties. Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More
The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission addressed the public on February 21-22 at the annual SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C. The presentations covered an array of topics, but common themes included the Commission’s ongoing effort to carry out the rulemaking agenda set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, its role as an enforcement body post-financial crisis, its increasing utilization of technology, and its renewed focus on the conduct of gatekeepers. In a surprise appearance, Dallas Mavericks owner and former insider trading defendant Mark Cuban attended the first day of the conference. During his time at the conference, Mr. Cuban shared his thoughts on a number of the presentations via his Twitter account.
From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following: Read More
On January 7, 2014 the SEC lost an insider trading bench trial before Judge William Duffey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. In a thorough opinion, Judge Duffey found the SEC’s case to be entirely circumstantial, founded on no more than a pattern of trades that were made in close proximity to communications between the purported tipper and tippee. This case shows how difficult insider trading claims are to prove, especially without wire taps, and may give the Commission pause in bringing cases to trial that rest on such circumstantial evidence.
On trial was Larry Schvacho, a retiree who spent much of his free time investing. The SEC alleged Schvacho had misappropriated material, nonpublic information from Larry Enterline, a long time friend, who was then CEO and director of Comsys IT. Although Schvacho had traded in Comsys stock for many years, the SEC’s case focused on trades Schvacho made during the run-up to an acquisition of Comsys by Manpower in early 2010. As the SEC established at trial, Schvacho and Enterline had repeatedly communicated and socialized together during the period, and there were numerous phone calls, text messages, car rides, sailing trips, and dinners where Enterline could have given Schvacho information about the acquisition. When news of the acquisition was eventually made public to the market, Schvacho made over $500,000 on his trades. Read More
Following a defense verdict in the insider trading case brought against him by the SEC, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has not been sitting on the bench—but rather using his blog to stay on the offensive. Since the October 16, 2013 verdict, Cuban continues to post about the case on his blog—including, just a few days ago, blogging about when his own blog became the focus of the trial. According to his October 26 post, an SEC attorney asked him during trial if everything he posted on his blog was true information, to which he replied that it was meant more “to communicate a point” and stimulate discussion. Following up, the SEC attorney asked: “If you post on your blog that you think the Lakers are going to stink in 2013 . . . you’re not telling this jury that that’s an opinion you don’t honestly hold, right?” Cuban posted that the courtroom “cracked up” when he replied “This year?”, before going on to answer: “Well, no. In 2004, I wouldn’t say it. They had Shaq, they had Kobe, they actually went to the finals . . . To answer your question, if I said in 2004 that they stink, I didn’t believe it.” In an earlier blog entry, Cuban also poked fun at the former Head of Enforcement—posting about internal emails, disclosed earlier in the case, in which SEC attorneys commented on photos of Cuban. Read More
In 2008, Rajat Gupta made a handful of short phone calls to his friend Raj Rajaratnam. The information that Gupta conveyed to Rajaratnam in those phone calls is now likely to cost Gupta millions of dollars, two years in prison, and the loss of his livelihood. These are the fateful consequences of the government’s use of wiretapping to uncover evidence of insider trading on Wall Street.
In June 2012, after a weeks-long trial and relying heavily on recorded conversations between Gupta and Rajaratnam, a jury convicted Gupta of three counts of federal securities fraud and one count of criminal conspiracy. The jury found that Gupta, a former director of Goldman Sachs, had provided Rajaratnam with material non-public information regarding Goldman’s then-unreported financial results and an imminent investment by Berkshire Hathaway at the height of the financial crisis. Though the court found that Gupta did not receive “one penny” in return for providing the information, he was convicted and ultimately sentenced by Judge Jed Rakoff to two years in prison and assessed a $5 million fine, a heavy penalty for his gratuitous generosity to his friend, Rajaratnam. To prove insider trading, the government is not required to prove that the “tippee” receive any direct financial benefit in recompense for transmitting material nonpublic information in violation of a duty of nondisclosure.
It is important to note that Gupta’s brief phone calls, which later became the key evidence used against Gupta in the criminal trial, were recorded by federal criminal prosecutors without Gupta’s knowledge or consent. (The SEC can seek to obtain wiretap evidence from criminal proceedings through civil discovery.) While the nation debates NSA snooping, this is a reminder that the Department of Justice could be listening to and recording your most sensitive domestic telephone conversations with court authorization. Gupta’s criminal prosecution was only possible because federal law enforcement officials had obtained warrants to record telephone communications of Gupta’s friend, Rajaratnam – telephone conversations that happened to include Gupta – based on evidence of possible insider trading. Gupta’s criminal conviction was then used to underpin his civil liability. The use of federal wire taps, previously the weapon of choice in organized crime prosecution, to generate the evidence needed to pursue both criminal and civil insider trading cases is a watershed moment in securities enforcement. Read More
The SEC came under scrutiny, including from U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, following an April 25, 2012 front page article in the Wall Street Journal which reported that the Agency had inadvertently revealed the identity of a whistleblower during an inquiry into his former employer.
The investigation involved Pipeline Trading Systems LLC, which runs stock trading platforms under its new name, Aritas Securities LLC. According to the article, an SEC Staff Attorney showed a notebook belonging to the whistleblower to a Pipeline executive during an interview. The executive recognized the handwriting regarding trades, meetings, and phone calls. Pipeline settled with the SEC on October 24, 2011. Read More
Recently, Sean McKessy, chief of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Office of the Whistleblower, reported on the increase in whistleblower tips that have come rolling into his newly created department. The SEC began monitoring these tips eight months ago when the final provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act enacted the whistleblower provisions in Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act. Section 21F of the Exchange Act directs the SEC to make monetary awards to whistleblowers that voluntarily provide original information that leads to successful enforcement action resulting in the imposition of monetary sanctions exceeding $1,000,000. Qualifying whistleblowers can reap between 10 percent and 30 percent of the monetary sanctions. Read More
The United States Supreme Court held on March 26th that the two-year statute limitation for Section 16 insider trading begins to run as the fraudulent trade is or should have been discovered by a shareholder plaintiff. See Credit Suisse Securities LLC et al v. Simmonds. This decision was yet another rebuke to the Ninth Circuit, which had previously held that the limitations period for a Section 16(b) claim could be tolled until the insider actually discloses his or her improper trade to the SEC and shareholders.
Defendant underwriters challenged the Ninth Circuit’s holding, calling it contrary to language of Section 16(b) that indicates the limitation period should begin to run as soon as an insider makes a profit from an illegal short-swing trade. In an unanimous decision penned by Justice Scalia, the Court agreed, noting that if the filing of a Section 16(a) disclosure statement were necessary for Section 16(b) liability to attach, company insiders and underwriters who failed to file a 16(a) disclosure would forever face the possibility of claims under 16(b). The Court held that “the potential for such endless tolling in cases in which a reasonably diligent plaintiff would know of the facts underlying the action is out of step with the purpose of limitations periods in general.” The Court did not reach the larger question of whether Section 16(a) are subject to any equitable tolling and thus remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration.
The Credit Suisse case is notable because it was one of 55 nearly identical actions filed over ten days in October 2007 by Vanessa Simmonds, then a 22-year old college student. The cases all alleged Section 16(b) claims against the underwriters and other financial institutions who had participated in IPO’s during the late 1990’s and 2000.