The start of the insider trading trial of a one-time billionaire Tuesday is expected to offer a rare look at the seamier side of Wall Street as prosecutors play taped conversations to try to prove that the powerful hedge fund founder conspired to earn more than $50 million illegally.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced the October 2009 arrest of Raj Rajaratnam by saying it was the largest hedge fund insider trading case in history and marked the first extensive use of wiretaps in a white collar prosecution. Since then, charges have been brought against more than two dozen others -- and 19 of them have pleaded guilty.
Evidence gathered during the investigation also has led to a separate probe of those who peddle inside information as the product of legitimate research. That investigation has resulted in nine arrests, with more defendants likely.
"When sophisticated business people begin to adopt the methods of common criminals, we have no choice but to treat them as such," Bharara said last year. "To use tough tactics in these circumstances is not being heavy-handed; it is being even-handed. ... It is not clear to me why alleged financial fraudsters deserve a milder approach just because they wear a white collar."
Rajaratnam, 53, of Manhattan, will be introduced Tuesday to some of the 150 prospective jurors who remain in the pool available to hear the case. Twelve jurors will be chosen for a trial expected to last about two months.
A copy of a questionnaire that will be used to survey the attitudes and history of jurors was released Monday. It showed that prospective jurors will be told that the case does not have anything to do with the recession or who is to be blamed for the nation's financial problems. It also calls for jurors to be asked whether evidence about wealthy individuals and multimillion-dollar transactions will make it difficult to be fair.
Rajaratnam, free on $100 million bail, has maintained his innocence, saying any trades he made were based on publicly available information. He is the richest Sri Lankan-born person in the world. In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked him No. 559 among the world's wealthiest billionaires, with a net worth of $1.3 billion. His lawyers say he is no longer a billionaire.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Bharara wants to send a message to Wall Street that federal investigators might be listening the next time secrets about public companies are passed around. In October, Bharara said insider trading was "rampant and may even be on the rise."
Since then, two separate judges have upheld the use of wiretaps in white collar cases. Bharara has said the known use of wiretaps perhaps has a "deterrent effect on those who have too long thought that law enforcement doesn't bother to eavesdrop on them."
Prosecutors say one of their first witnesses at Rajaratnam's trial will be Anil Kumar, a former senior partner and director at McKinsey & Co. who pleaded guilty to charges. Prosecutors say Rajaratnam made at least $24.5 million from secrets Kumar provided from 2003 through October 2009. The government has said the pair became friends after meeting at business school in the 1980s.
Other potential witnesses reportedly include Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs chief executive, along with FBI agents who gathered evidence against the defendants. In a defense submission to the court, lawyers said the government witness list, which is not public, includes Goldman Sachs and Proctor & Gamble representatives. Phone records will be shown to jurors to chronicle communication that the government said occurred between co-conspirators sometimes minutes after inside information was learned.
Last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Streeter said the government planned to show at trial that a former Goldman Sachs board member conspired with Rajaratnam, telling him inside information within minutes of learning it, including that Goldman was losing money at the height of the 2008 economic crisis.
Rajaratnam is being represented by John Dowd, who gained a measure of fame when he prepared a report on Pete Rose's gambling before Rose accepted a lifetime ban from baseball in August 1989.
Among those who have already pleaded guilty to charges in the case is Danielle Chiesi, who said she gave Rajaratnam inside information while she worked at New Castle, the equity hedge fund group of Bear Stearns Asset Management Inc. Though the charges she had faced carried a potential prison term of up to 155 years, her plea agreement suggested she serve between three and four years in prison. If convicted, the charges against Rajaratnam carry a potential penalty of up to 185 years in prison.
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