Prosecutors seek 'any and all' SAC assets in sweeping complaint

Preet Bharara, United States Attorney
Timothy Clary | AFP | Getty Images
Preet Bharara, United States Attorney

If federal prosecutors are successful in their case against SAC Capital, the firm and its multi-billionaire founder Steve Cohen could be left virtually penniless.

That is because in addition to the five-count criminal indictment against the firm unsealed today, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara unveiled a separate civil complaint targeting "any and all assets" of SAC and its funds.

The complaint does not specify the amount the government is seeking, but notes that at their peak, the firm and its funds were worth $15 billion. Forbes has listed Cohen's personal net worth at $9.3 billion as of March—virtually all of it tied to the hedge fund business he founded. Those numbers have almost certainly dropped considerably as the case progressed and investors withdrew funds, but the amount is still well into the billions of dollars.

(Read more: Cramer: SAC Capital playing you for a dope?)

"Our aim is to make sure that what is consistent with the criminal law interest of deterrence and penalties and disgorgement of profits is what the ultimate number will be," Bharara said at a Thursday afternoon news conference in New York.

But while the complaint does not give a specific number, it does make clear the government would like that number to be big.

In addition to going after "any and all assets" of SAC, prosecutors are also seeking civil money laundering penalties. Under federal law, those penalties could be as high as the total amount of the assets forfeited—in other words it could double the amount SAC must pay.

(Read more: Indictment documents: USA v. SAC Capital Advisors)

How does an insider trading case lead to money laundering allegations?

The civil complaint alleges SAC "laundered" the illegal profits in the four funds charged criminally by funneling the money into the firm's other funds.

"The criminal conduct of the SAC entity defendants did not end with the execution of their insider trading scheme," the complaint says. "It continued when the illicit profits from insider trading were knowingly commingled with other capital in the SAC investment funds, used to promote further trades based on inside information, and transferred to SAC employees in the form of bonus payments, with the assistance of financial institutions."

In a statement, SAC denies promoting insider trading.

"The handful of men who admit they broke the law does not reflect the honesty, integrity and character of the thousands of men and women who have worked at SAC over the past 21 years," the statement says.

(Read more: SAC Capital Advisors indicted by a federal grand jury)

SAC also points out that the government has not sought to freeze any of the firm's assets, and that it plans to continue operating normally.

"We anticipate that we and the U.S. Attorney's Office will agree to a protective order intended to reasonably protect all parties' legitimate interests," the firm says.

Bharara confirmed that in his news conference.

(Read more: SAC Capital refuts allegations against Steve Cohen)

"We are always mindful to minimize risks to third-party investors," Bharara said.

While the criminal case against SAC was developed by prosecutors in Bharara's office with assistance from the FBI , CNBC has learned the asset forfeiture portion of the case was put together with attorneys at Department of Justice headquarters in Washington.

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn; Follow him on Twitter @ScottCohnCNBC