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New Trading Case Casts a Deeper Shadow on a Hedge Fund Mogul

In 2010, the billionaire hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen gave a rare interview to Vanity Fair. He said that he wanted to combat persistent rumors that his firm, SAC Capital Advisors, routinely violated securities laws by trading on confidential information.

Paul Giamou | Aurora | Getty Images

"In some respects I feel like Don Quixote fighting windmills," Mr. Cohen said at the time. "There's a perception, and I'm trying to fight that perception."

Federal prosecutors only heightened that perception on Tuesday, bringing a criminal case against a former SAC employee in what Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, who brought the charges in Federal District Court in Manhattan, called the most lucrative insider trading scheme ever charged.

And for the first time, the evidence suggests that Mr. Cohen participated in trades that the government says illegally used insider information - though prosecutors have not said that Mr. Cohen himself knew the information was confidential, and he has not been charged.

Any prosecution of Mr. Cohen would most likely hinge on the cooperation of Mathew Martoma, the former SAC employee charged in the case. Mr. Bharara said in the charges that Mr. Martoma obtained secret data from a doctor about clinical trials for an Alzheimer's drug being developed by the companies Elan and Wyeth. The information enabled SAC to avoid losses of almost $194 million on the stocks, which it sold and then bet against, reaping $83 million in profit - a total benefit to the firm of more than $276 million. SAC executed the trades shortly after Mr. Martoma e-mailed Mr. Cohen and said he needed to discuss something important.

As to Mr. Cohen's potential culpability in the case, the crucial issue is what Mr. Martoma told Mr. Cohen that led SAC to quickly dump $700 million worth of stock. Did he provide his boss details on why he had turned sour on Wyeth and Elan? Specifically, did he share the leak about the drug trial's negative results and identify the source of the secret information? Through a spokesman, he said he was confident he had acted appropriately.

It appears, for now, that Mr. Martoma will fight the charges. But the crucial question, as it relates to Mr. Cohen, is whether at some point Mr. Martoma will reverse course, admit to insider trading and agree to help the government build a case against his former boss. Without Mr. Martoma's cooperation, it is unlikely that the prosecutors have enough evidence to charge Mr. Cohen.

"This has all the markings of a case where the government goes after the smaller fish and then pressures them to flip so they can get the whale," said Bradley D. Simon, a criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor in New York.

The government has several weapons for its effort to persuade Mr. Martoma to agree to a plea, including the stiff sentences for insider trading. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, Mr. Martoma could receive more than 15 years in prison, a term that could be reduced - or avoided altogether - if he agreed to testify against Mr. Cohen.

F.B.I. agents arrested Mr. Martoma, 38, early Tuesday morning at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., a nearly 8,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion on the grounds of the elite Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club. He lives there with his wife, a pediatrician, and three children. A graduate of Duke University and Stanford University's business school, Mr. Martoma is expected to make an appearance in Federal District Court in Manhattan Monday morning.

Described by a former colleague as low-key and cerebral, Mr. Martoma is one of scores of traders who have earned millions of dollars working under Mr. Cohen and feeding him their best investment ideas. He joined SAC in 2006. In 2008, the year he participated in the alleged illegal trade, the firm paid Mr. Martoma a $9.3 million bonus. But SAC fired him in 2010 after two years of subpar performance.

Charles A. Stillman, a lawyer for Mr. Martoma, said on the day of his arrest, "What happened today is only the beginning of a process that we are confident will lead to Mr. Martoma's full exoneration."

It is no secret that the government has been circling Mr. Cohen since the middle of last decade, when it began its crackdown on insider trading, an investigation that has resulted in more than 70 criminal charges. Prosecutors have already linked five former SAC employees to insider trading while at the fund - securing three convictions - though none of those cases connected Mr. Cohen to any illicit activity. But the complaint filed on Tuesday puts Mr. Cohen at the center of the supposed improper conduct.

Mr. Cohen, 56, is a legend on Wall Street, having amassed a multibillion-dollar fortune by posting phenomenal investment returns averaging about 30 percent over the last two decades. Starting with a $25 million grubstake, SAC now manages about $13 billion and has 900 employees across the globe. Mr. Cohen has also emerged as a major force in the art world, owning an eclectic collection that includes works by Picasso, Warhol and Cézanne.

Prosecutors have constructed their case against Mr. Martoma, and increased the pressure on him, by securing the cooperation of Dr. Sidney Gilman, the doctor who supposedly leaked to him the Alzheimer's drug's trial data. The case against Mr. Martoma will depend largely on Dr. Gilman's credibility as a witness.

Dr. Gilman, 80, a neurologist at the University of Michigan medical school, was hired by Elan and Wyeth to monitor the trial's safety, which gave him access to secret information about the results. SAC retained Dr. Gilman as a consultant and paid him about $108,000.

At first, Dr. Gilman's reports on the trial's progress were positive, and SAC built a position in the two drug makers worth approximately $700 million, according to prosecutors. But then, on July 17, 2008, Dr. Gilman told Mr. Martoma that there were problems with the drug, the government said.

A few days later, Mr. Martoma e-mailed Mr. Cohen that he needed to discuss something "important," and the two then spoke for 20 minutes, according to court filings. Over the next four days, at Mr. Cohen's direction, SAC Capital jettisoned its entire position in the two stocks and then placed a big negative bet on the drug makers, the government said.

On July 30, after disclosure of the poor trial results, shares of Elan and Wyeth sank. According to the prosecutors' calculations, SAC would have lost about $194 million had it kept the stock; taking a short position instead generated profits of about $83 million.

Dr. Gilman and the Justice Department have entered into a nonprosecution agreement under which he will cooperate in exchange for not being criminally charged.

Thus far, any potential evidence against Mr. Cohen is entirely circumstantial. The government's complaint includes e-mails about secretly selling the Elan and Wyeth shares through esoteric methods like algorithms and dark pools. But that is common practice among large, sophisticated funds that do not want to alert competitors or move the stock too much. Moreover, while SAC dumped its large positions in the two stocks quickly - raising the question of what prompted it to do so - Mr. Cohen is known for a rapid-fire trading style. He frequently moves aggressively in and out of stocks while processing gobs of information fed to him by his underlings.

It would be difficult for a jury to infer anything incriminating just from the way these trades were executed.

The government in this case also lacks the powerful wiretap evidence that it has used to convict dozens others, including Raj Rajaratnam, the head of the Galleon Group. Federal agents did wiretap Mr. Cohen's home telephone for a short period in 2008, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. But it is unclear whether the eavesdropping, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, yielded any fruit.

Even without incriminating wiretap evidence, the government has brought cases that rely almost entirely on witnesses testifying against their bosses.

One of those cases is now under way in federal court in Manhattan. Prosecutors are currently trying the former hedge fund portfolio managers Anthony Chiasson of Level Global Investors and Todd Newman of Diamondback Capital Management. Prosecutors say that the two were part of a conspiracy that made about $68 million illegally trading technology stocks.

The outcome of that trial is expected to depend largely on whether the jury believes the testimony of two cooperating witnesses who admitted to the conspiracy - Spyridon Adondakis and Jesse Tortora, former junior analysts at Level Global and Diamondback. The two say they shared secret information with the defendants. Defense lawyers have attacked the witnesses' credibility, accusing them of lying to avoid prison.

That case, too, has strong ties to SAC. Mr. Chiasson and his co-founder were star traders under Mr. Cohen before starting the now-defunct Level Global. And the owners of Diamondback are both former SAC employees; one is Mr. Cohen's brother-in-law, Richard Schimel. Diamondback, which continues to operate, has not been accused of wrongdoing.

"SAC's extraordinary profits have always been something of a market mystery," said Sebastian Mallaby, the author of "More Money Than God," a book on the history of hedge funds. "As more and more lawsuits implicate former SAC traders, we may at last understand where SAC's profits came from."