NEW YORK — The hedge fund operated by embattled billionaire Steven A. Cohen made hundreds of millions of dollars illegally and allowed unprecedented and pervasive insider trading to go on unchecked for years, federal prosecutors said in an indictment unsealed Thursday.
SAC Capital Advisors was charged in an indictment with wire fraud and four counts of securities fraud. Prosecutors allege the crimes were carried out from 1999 through at least 2010.
Cohen himself wasn't named as a defendant in the criminal case, but the charges could threaten to topple a firm he founded and that once managed $15 billion in assets. In court papers filed in federal court in Manhattan, the government sought the forfeiture of "any and all" assets of SAC and related companies it identified.
The charges came less than a week after federal regulators accused him in a related civil case of failing to prevent insider trading at the firm.
A spokesman for SAC and a lawyer for Cohen did not immediately respond to messages for comment Thursday. Last week, an SAC Capital spokesman said that the related allegations brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission have "no merit" and that "Steve Cohen acted appropriately at all times."
In a statement, FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos called it "a case about corporate conduct and corporate responsibility. SAC Capital and its management fostered a culture of permissiveness. SAC not only tolerated cheating, it encouraged it."
The Justice Department's also filed a related civil lawsuit against SAC on Thursday in Manhattan. Both it and the indictment said insider trading at the company was "substantial, pervasive and on a scale without known precedent in the hedge fund industry."
In court papers, the government did not identify Cohen by name but blasted the "SAC owner," saying he purposely tried to hire portfolio managers and analysts who knew employees of public companies likely to possess inside information.
The government said he "enabled and promoted the insider trading scheme by ignoring indications that trading recommendations were based on inside information" and failed to question new employee candidates who implied their trading advantage was based on sources of inside information.
It said Cohen "also furthered the insider trading scheme by fostering a culture that focused on not discussing inside information too openly, rather than not seeking or trading on such information in the first place."
The criminal charges said SAC's "relentless pursuit of an information 'edge' fostered a business culture within SAC in which there was no meaningful commitment to ensure that such 'edge' came from legitimate research and not inside information."
It added: "The predictable and foreseeable result, as charged herein, was systematic insider trading by the SAC entity defendants resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal profits and avoided losses at the expense of members of the investing public."
The indictment said SAC carried out the insider trading scheme with a staff of numerous portfolio managers and research analysts "who engaged in a pattern of obtaining insider information from dozens of publicly-traded companies across multiple industry sectors."
It said SAC sought to hire portfolio managers and research analysts with proven access to public company contacts likely to possess inside information. The managers and analysts weren't questioned when they made trading recommendations that appeared to be based on inside information, the indictment said.
The problem was compounded when SAC on numerous occasions failed to use effective compliance procedures or practices designed to root out wrongdoing. The pursuit of a trading edge overwhelmed limited SAC compliance systems, prosecutors said.
But the government faulted the company's compliance department too, saying its internal investigations were weak, with a focus on "confirming" that an employee's email implying access to inside information was merely a poorly drafted email.
The government said the compliance department had identified only a single instance of suspected insider trading by its employees in its history even though six former portfolio managers and analysts had pleaded guilty to insider trading on numerous occasions and over a substantial period of time.
In remarks prepared for a news conference, Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office, said: "The SAC compliance department was like the embodiment of the phrase, 'See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.'"
Barry Boss, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington, said the frequent references to Cohen in government court papers were a way for prosecutors to cast aspersions of guilt without providing the due process normally required before someone is labeled a criminal.
"Given a choice between being besmirched in the indictment and being named in the indictment, I think somebody would take besmirched every day," he said.
SAC Capital has been at the center of one of the biggest insider-trading fraud cases in history. Four employees have already been criminally charged with insider trading, and two of them have pleaded guilty. And an SAC affiliate has agreed to pay $615 million to settle SEC charges.
Cohen, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., is one of the highest profile figures in American finance and one of the richest men in America. He is among the handful of upper-tier hedge fund managers on Wall Street who pull in about $1 billion a year in compensation.
The SEC alleged that Cohen received "highly suspicious information that should have caused any reasonable hedge fund manager in Cohen's position to take prompt action to determine whether employees under his supervision were engaged in unlawful conduct and to prevent violations of the federal securities laws."
An SAC portfolio manager, Mathew Martoma, has pleaded not guilty to insider-trading charges accusing him of earning $9 million in bonuses after persuading a medical professor to leak secret data from an Alzheimer's disease trial between 2006 and 2008. Authorities haven't disputed reports that Cohen is the "Hedge Fund Owner" repeatedly referenced in a criminal complaint against Martoma.
The papers describe how Cohen rejected the advice of his own analysts and instead bet heavily on Martoma's tips about secret data from a study of an experimental drug. After learning through Martoma in 2008 that experiments weren't going well, Cohen instructed his top trader to begin dumping stock, "and to do so in a way to not alert anyone else," the papers say.
Even in the high-flying hedge fund world, SAC Capital stands out for its mammoth returns. Meanwhile, Cohen became one of the highest-profile figures in U.S. finance and the 40th-richest American, with a net worth of $8.8 billion, according to Forbes. Of the roughly $15 billion in assets that SAC Capital managed as of earlier this year, about half belonged to Cohen and his employees and half was client money.
In the past, the Justice Department has been wary of bringing criminal prosecutions against entire organizations out of fear of the collateral damage — that going further than fining a company could kill a business. The accounting firm Arthur Andersen went under after it was convicted in 2002 of destroying Enron-related documents before the energy giant's collapse — an outcome that cost tens of thousands of jobs.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in remarks last week not specific to the SAC Capital probe, alluded to the Arthur Anderson episode.
"We have a lot of power to bring cases like that and we don't do it a lot in part because of Arthur Andersen, and part because we care about what the interest of justice requires and we care about collateral consequences," Bharara said. "But there are circumstances in which it is appropriate to do, particularly when you have continued malfeasance over time among a large number of people."
There are already reports that SAC's clients are pulling their money from the Stamford, Conn.-based firm. It's not always an easy process: Clients usually have to give notice of at least 30 days. Hedge funds also can write into their contracts that they'll deny withdrawal requests if too many clients want to pull out money at the same time.
In the face of mounting legal woes, Cohen has kept up his philanthropic efforts. The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, named for Cohen and his wife, recently helped sponsor a $10,000-per-table poker tournament in Manhattan that raised money for an education advocacy group.
Associated Press writers Christina Rexrode in New York and Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.