Jon Corzine Back in Hot Seat, Now With Two Deputies

Jon Corzine says he never told anyone to misuse $1.2 billion in customer money that vanished when MF Global collapsed this fall.

MF Global Hearing 12.13.2011
Photo: Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
MF Global Hearing 12.13.2011

Senators demanded Corzine and two other executives at the securities firm explain who authorized the transfer of money in the days before the firm collapsed in the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

"I never gave any instruction to anyone at MF Global to misuse customer funds," Corzine testified at a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.

Corzine, a former Democratic New Jersey senator and governor, resigned as CEO of the securities firm last month.

Bradley Abelow, the firm's president and chief operating officer, and Henri Steenkamp, the chief financial officer, also tried to distance themselves from any decision to transfer the money at the hearing.

Brokers are required to keep client money separate from company funds.

"Funds don't simply disappear. Someone took action, whether legal or illegal, to move that money. And the effect of that decision is being felt across the countryside," said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the committee's top Republican.

Roberts said MF Global violated "a sacred rule of the futures industry," keeping customer funds separate from the firm's — and that it was the first time that had happened. "You don't break the glass in regards to segregated funds."

All three witnesses said they don't know where the money is. Yet their phrasing varied in subtle ways that could have legal distinctions. Corzine said he did not direct anyone to "misuse" the money.

Abelow said he does not recall "any conversation about customer funds being used for anything other than their intended purpose."

Steenkamp's stance was more sweeping. He said he did not "authorize, approve or know of any transfers of customer funds" out of their accounts.

Depending on the circumstances, transferring money from customers' accounts could violate securities laws and, in some cases, could amount to a crime. Federal authorities have begun criminal investigations. And regulators are looking into whether the firm broke securities rules.

Corzine reiterated last week's comments, saying didn't become aware of the shortfall until Oct. 30, one day before the firm filed for bankruptcy protection.

Steenkamp said he had no direct involvement in the transfer of funds.

MF Global Hearing 12.13.2011
Photo: Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
MF Global Hearing 12.13.2011

"Direct involvement with operational matters such as bank accounts or fund transfers has never been part of my duties," Steenkamp says.

Abelow cannot explain what happened to the money without having access to MF Global documents, which a trustee now controls.

"I do not know the answers to those questions," he said, sticking to prepared testimony.

Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York, said Steenkamp and Abelow "are in a riskier position" than Corzine because they were responsible for day-to-day operations of MF Global.

Tuesday's hearing will include an added element of drama because Corzine, a former Democratic senator from New Jersey, will be pressed by some senators he served with from 2000 through 2005.

The Senate panel is one of three congressional committees to have issued subpoenas to compel Corzine's testimony on the issue. It marked the first time a former senator has been subpoenaed by his former peers in more than 100 years, according to the Senate historian's office.

Many lawmakers have heard from farmers, ranchers and small business owners in their states who are missing money that was deposited with the firm. Agricultural businesses use brokerage firms like MF Global to help reduce their risks in an industry vulnerable to swings in oil, corn and other commodity prices.

Corzine, who also was New Jersey governor from 2006 until early 2010, told lawmakers last week that if any subordinates moved clients' money in the belief that Corzine had authorized it, "it was a misunderstanding," he said.

Bradley Abelow- MF Global
Getty Images
Bradley Abelow- MF Global

Corzine, Steenkamp and Abelow have been sued in class-action complaints on behalf of MF Global shareholders. The lawsuits accuse the executives of making false and misleading statements about MF Global's financial strength and cash balances.

MF Global didn't list the European debt on its balance sheet for all to see. Instead, those holdings were shifted to the company's "off-balance sheet," deep in its financial statements. Some separate filings with regulators excluded the European debt entirely.

A lawyer for the trustee overseeing the liquidation of MF Global's brokerage operations said in court Friday that the trustee's staff has discovered some "suspicious" trades in MF Global customer accounts that were made in the last days before the firm failed.

The lawyer didn't provide details.