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The SEC and its culture of regulatory capture

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The SEC and its culture of regulatory capture


Perspective is a funny thing. The full taxpayer cost of the S&L bailout came to an enormous, inflation-adjusted tab of around $255-billion; and yet, in the shadow of the latest spate of bank bailout checks written by Congress, that doesn’t seem like much. Similarly, the $60-billion Madoff fiasco tends to make the many Ponzi scheme busts that followed seem quaint by comparison, including the $7-billion scam allegedly carried out by Robert Allen Stanford’s firm.

Just to make sure everybody agrees that $7-billion is a lot of money – keep in mind it exceeds the GNP of 40% of the nations on earth. Imagine putting a match to all the goods and services produced in one year by the people of Laos or Mongolia. Stanford is accused of doing that, and more. But because it’s just a tenth of the wealth destroyed by Madoff, Stanford may forever be regarded a Ponzi also-ran.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the Stanford case is the bigger outrage by far, not so much for the scam itself, but for the shocking behavior of the regulators tasked with preventing it. Where Madoff was enabled by SEC bureaucratic incompetence, Stanford was empowered by overt SEC indifference.

That’s right – indifference. Unlike Meghan Cheung, the former head of enforcement at the SEC’s New York branch, who didn’t know how to determine whether Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, her counterpart in Fort Worth spent years swimming in evidence of Stanford’s scam, but simply preferred not to do anything about it.

The evidence, if you can stomach it, is oozing out of the report recently submitted by SEC Inspector General extraordinaire David Kotz. In it, we learn that SEC examiners spotted the red flags as early as 1997, and spent eight years lobbying then-chief of Fort Worth’s enforcement division, Spencer Barasch, to investigate. Barasch repeatedly declined, even as evidence of the Stanford scam – together with the size of the scam itself – grew exponentially.

The first referral by SEC examiners was sent to Barasch in 1998. According to the testimony of Julie Preuitt, who helped author the request, Barasch declined to investigate after discussing the matter with Stanford’s legal counsel at the time, former SEC Fort Worth District Administrator Wayne Secore.

According to the report:

Barasch told Preuitt “he asked Wayne Secore if there was a case there and Wayne Secore said that there wasn’t. So he was satisfied with that and decided not to pursue it further.”

Obviously, Barasch denies this, and such a claim would be difficult to believe were it not for the well-documented facts that follow.

Barasch finally left the SEC for a spot as partner in the law firm of Andrews Kurth in 2005, shortly after putting the kibosh on a third attempt by SEC examiners to investigate Stanford. Barasch’s replacement accepted a similar recommendation later that year, but the resulting inquiry was mismanaged and did not produce an enforcement case until February 2009, after the Commission’s hand was forced by Madoff’s admission two months earlier.

But it was what happened after Barasch’s departure from the SEC that casts his earlier actions in a much harsher light. As the investigation discovered:

[Barasch], who played a significant role in multiple decisions over the years to quash investigations of Stanford, sought to represent Stanford on three separate occasions after he left the Commission, and in fact represented Stanford briefly in 2006 before he was informed by the SEC Ethics Office that it was improper to do so.

The final of Barasch’s three attempts to represent Stanford was by far the most brazen, not to mention instructive. It happened in February 2009, immediately after the SEC filed suit against Stanford. Like the two before it, the third was also denied. When asked to justify the renewed request, Barasch replied,

“Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich over this case. Okay? And I hated being on the sidelines.”

In email, veritas.

Not only was Barasch apparently numb to the definition of “ethical conflict,” he seems to have used it as a business development tool, at least that’s the impression left by an email not included in the Kotz report but acquired by the Dallas Morning News. According to the email, after Mark Cuban was sued by the SEC’s Fort Worth office for insider trading in 2008, Barasch told an associate of Cuban’s,

“I am friends with and helped promote two of the guys who signed the Complaint against Mark. Someone should tell Mark to look at my profile on my firm website, my SEC press releases, and advise Mark to add me to his defense team.”

It’s safe to say that Barasch plays the heavy in the IG’s report, but read it carefully, and you’ll find that he’s not the real villain. Instead, that role is played subtly but consistently by the broader SEC Enforcement Division’s flawed culture.

As the report stated,

We found that the Fort Worth Enforcement program’s decisions not to undertake a full and thorough investigation of Stanford were due, at least in part, to Enforcement’s perception that the Stanford case was difficult, novel and not the type favored by the Commission. The former head of the Fort Worth office told the OIG that regional offices were “heavily judged” by the number of cases they brought and that it was very important for the Fort Worth office to bring a high number of cases…The former head of the Examination program in Fort Worth testified that Enforcement leadership in Fort Worth “was pretty upfront” with the Enforcement staff about the pressure to produce numbers and communicated to the Enforcement staff, “I want numbers. I want these things done quick.” He also testified that this pressure for numbers incentivized the Enforcement staff to focus on “easier cases” – “quick hits.”

And these instructions were predictably manifest in the handling of the Stanford case, as evidenced by the reaction to an anonymous Stanford insider’s letter, first sent to the NASD, denouncing Stanford as a Ponzi scheme. The letter was forwarded to the SEC where Barasch saw and ignored it, saying,

“Rather than spend a lot of resources on something that could end up being something that we could not bring, the decision was made to not go forward at that time, or at least to not spend the significant resources and wait and see if something else would come up.”

The report also cites a former Fort Worth office administrator who says Barasch and others in his group had been subjected to criticism from high-level SEC staff in Washington DC for “bringing too many Temporary Restraining Order, Ponzi, and prime bank cases.”

Accordingly, Fort Worth was admonished to avoid investigating “mainstream” cases in favor of simple accounting fraud.

Now, let’s take a step back to see what insights into the SEC’s enforcement paradigm might be gleaned from what we’ve learned so far.

  1. Given his actions both prior to and after leaving the Commission, I suspect Spencer Barasch’s approach to regulating Stanford – and presumably other entities – was heavily influenced by a desire to maximize his eventual private sector opportunities. This is further evidence that the significance of regulatory capture and the revolving door ethic in the minds of SEC enforcement officials cannot be overstated.
  2. Whereas “Ponzi and prime bank cases” most often apply to investing institutions, while accounting fraud charges are most often leveled against public companies, I suspect the high-level mandate to prefer the latter over the former to be the root of the SEC’s long-suspected anti-issuer/pro-institutional investor bias – or at the very least, further evidence of it.
  3. This apparent anti-issuer bias, paired with the report’s well-documented evidence of the SEC’s preference of case quantity over quality, offers additional support for the widely-held belief that cases against public companies are seen as low-hanging (and career-protecting) fruit in the eyes of Enforcement Division staffers.

If my conclusions are correct, then the Stanford outrage is not really about Spencer Barasch, but the SEC’s flawed enforcement culture, from Washington DC on down. I further suspect this culture to be a key factor in explaining the SEC’s role as enabler of the stock manipulation schemes extensively documented here on Deep Capture.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, consider the words of then-Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Linda Chatman Thomsen, responding to a question posed by a member of the audience following her keynote address at the US Chamber of Commerce’s 2008 Capital Markets Summit.

Audience member: “You spent a lot of time talking about insider trading and penny stock fraud, but you failed to mention an issue that’s of great concern to the Chamber, and that is naked short selling and the unsettled trades that can result from that. How can the Commission claim that it is serious about enforcement when millions of trades fail to settle every day and companies remain on Reg SHO Threshold Lists for years and years?”

Thomsen: “As to naked short selling, and more generally market manipulation generally, it is an area we are focused on. We have seen fewer cases in that arena because, often times, this is not necessarily with respect to naked shorts, but shorting or market manipulation more generally, because often the components of something that might look to be manipulative are all legal trades as you point out. So it’s a hard case to bring, which is not to say that it isn’t something that we don’t investigate, because we do. So I hear and understand the frustration of many on the subject of short selling generally. When we hear complaints about short selling—and, frankly, it is both short and naked short, it is a combination of both—we routinely hear from companies who’ve come in, who worry that they’re being shorted in an illegal way. We routinely take all that information in and look into it.

“And often times, as I think many defense counsel would be happy to tell you, when we dig in, what we find is that some of the information that has caused people to be shorting is actually true as to the company, and we may very well be confronted with two issues, one on the company and its disclosure side as well as on the trading side. But they’re very difficult cases, which is not to say that we aren’t focused on them and interested in them and indeed this new focus that we have on some smaller companies and smaller issuers will wrap some of those concerns into their focus as well.”

Thomsen’s answer needs to be examined from two angles: what she said and what she (meaning, her division) actually did.

What Thomsen said, was that when it comes to illegal, manipulative naked short selling, “it’s a hard case to bring,” and that it often it turns out the targeted company deserved to have its stock manipulated. But don’t worry…the SEC Division of Enforcement cares and regularly investigates complaints of illegal, manipulative short selling.

What Thomsen’s division actually did was quite different. We know this thanks to another outstanding report by SEC Inspector General David Kotz relating to the Commission’s handling of complaints of illegal, manipulative naked short selling between January 2007 and June 2008. What Kotz discovered was that of the more than 5,000 complaints received by the Division of Enforcement during that time, not one resulted in an investigation.

Kotz further found that while robust methods exist for dealing with complaints relating to “spam driven manipulations, unregistered online offerings and insider trading” (again, infractions typically committed by issuers), no written policies existed for dealing with complaints of illegal naked short selling. This “[has] the effect of naked short selling complaints being treated differently than other types of complaints.”

And in this case, “differently” meant “not at all.” This attitude closely mirrors that of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement as described in the Stanford report.

In my opinion, the best thing to happen to the SEC in many years is the arrival of Inspector General David Kotz. The second best thing is the February 2009 departure of Linda Thomsen. In the months following the arrival of Thomsen’s successor, Robert Khuzami, many encouraging developments have been observed, including two enforcement cases brought against manipulative naked short sellers, the permanent adoption of regulations greatly reducing instances of such manipulation, and the recent case brought against Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS). Each of these represents an important departure from the SEC’s long-standing anti-issuer/pro-bank approach to regulation.

These positive developments notwithstanding, the dysfunctional culture at the SEC’s Division of Enforcement was undoubtedly a long time in the making. As a result, it will require a long time to root out. Unfortunately, we don’t have a long time. Investor confidence in the fundamental fairness of our capital markets must be restored now, not as long as it takes the old guard’s institutional memory to fade away. Having read the Stanford report, the only practical solution I see is a new beginning. Congress needs to sunset the SEC on an immovable — and ideally not too distant — date certain and instruct the Department of Justice to have a replacement ready to begin work the next day.

The next best solution would be to disband the SEC entirely, and send big, red warning letters to all potential market participants, giving them fair warning that they’re on their own.

These may seem like desperate measures, but I suspect you’ll agree these are becoming increasingly desperate times.

Posted in Featured Stories, Our Captured Federal Regulator the SEC, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (83)

SEC Enforcement Chief Linda Thomsen Joins Davis Polk. Somebody Call Kreskin.

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SEC Enforcement Chief Linda Thomsen Joins Davis Polk. Somebody Call Kreskin.


As a rule, I avoid criticizing individual public servants. Elected officials are fair game, in my view, but not public servants. They do not wake up and go into work wanting to do a bad job, I know, and I have had too many tailwinds in life to criticize wantonly people who devote themselves to public service of any kind, simply as a matter of principle.

For recently retired SEC Enforcement Director Linda Thomsen, however, I’ll make an exception. (As Mr. Buffett says, “There are times when a man has to rise above his principles.”)

The first story I would like to tell about this Enforcement Director concerns an investigation that the SEC’s San Francisco office was conducting a few years into collusion among short-sellers and crooked journalists who shilled for them using ammunition provided by “research shops” which were fed their material by those same hedge funds, in a kind of “serpent-eating-its-tail” of financial hooliganism. It was a hard scheme to miss: any company shorted by Stevie Cohen (SAC), David Einhorn (Greenlight), Dan Loeb (Third Point), David Rocker, or a handful of others, could count on coming under the “where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire” journalistic scrutiny of such worthies as Jim Cramer and Dave Kansas, Gary “Scaramouche” Weiss, BethanyLong, Slow ThingMcLean and Roddy Boyd (both of Fortune Magazine), Carol Remond and Karen Richardson (both of DowJones), Floyd Norris and Joe Nocera, (both of the New York Times), and Herb Greenberg (MarketWatch), that “smoke” often being supplied by research shops of which those same hedge funds were clients. Invariably they’d be naked shorted as well, and show up on the Reg SHO Threshold List, and anyone noticing this constellation of facts occurring over and over with complete regularity could be counted on to be declared “wacky” by these same journalists.

I learned about this investigation because I was invited to a meeting by the SEC investigators conducting it. I’m pretty sure that “invitation” came in the form of a federal subpoena, but I am not completely clear on that, having over the last few years received enough such paperwork to wallpaper my bedroom. In any case, I arrived at the appointed hour, and was sworn in. My deposition was conducted by a man named “Mark” and overseen by his boss, Tracy, both of whose last names I see no reason to reveal. They both were the kind of federal employees that make one swell with pride: They displayed neither favor nor enmity, but simply, white collar professionalism such as has largely been lost in Corporate America. They were prompt, prepared, and business-like, and, without being rude, challenged me fairly aggressively while revealing to me as little as they could.

That said, try as they did, it was impossible for them to be as blank to me as they wished. After all, if someone asks, “What do you know about the possibility that Colonel  Mustard killed his victim in the library with a rope?”, then it is resonable to infor that the utterer suspects that Colonel Mustard may have indeed killed someone in the library with a rope. In this fashion, I became reasonably confident that while the New York financial press was bleating about how wacky I must be to notice patterns that many sane observers had noticed, those same patterns had been noticed by others better placed to do something about them than I. (Incidentally, normally I would be loathe to reveal the contents of such a deposition, but given that this is all moot now, yet tied to today’s news, and the bad guys are using FOIA requests to get this stuff anyway, it seems like the right thing to do.)

Somewhere around this time, Jim Cramer and others of the journalists mentioned above  received their own subpoenas. All hell broke loose, because they made it break loose (see for example “Herb Greenberg, The Worst Business Journalist in America, on the Conspiracy“). Of course, in a world where editors still had integrity, it would have been considered somewhat unseamly to have journalists reporting on an investigation of which they, themselves, had become the targets (I’m not sure why I mention that: I suppose it seems like it should be germane or something). But as a result, that investigation was promptly shit-canned. There’s no other way to describe it: the investigators were summoned to Washington, publicly crapped upon from a great height by SEC Chairman Chris Cox, the Enforcement Director who signed those subpoenas stood by idly while this happened to her staff, and we returned to our regularly scheduled programming of Muzak and bromide business reporting interrupted occasionally by B-list actors pitching Grandmother-Safe financial products and narcissistic hustlers promising that this time they really wanted to make you money, Mad Money!

Interestingly, not all the press backed up their brethren: editorials by Loren Steffy of the Houston Chronicle spring to mind in this regard. But by and large, the profession of business journalism stood mute while the reporting on a federal investigation was dominated by folks who were themselves the targets of that investigation.

The second story I would like to tell about this SEC Enforcement Director concerns some comments she made in 2008 in a keynote address before the United States Chamber of Commerce. In a pattern that observers of this issue have seen before, when asked about naked short selling, the Enforcement Director avoided the question by simply talking about the virtues of short selling, an issue which is not in contention. This pattern of avoiding the subject of naked short selling has been used time and time again by apologists for the practice (imagine someone being asked about sexual harassment, and answering with a response about the virtues of sex). Unfortunately for the Enforcement Director, her interlocutor, who was standing in the front row, directly in front of her podium, using a microphone that broadcast his voice loudly to the whole room (and you will see in a moment why that is relevant) pressed her on the distinction in a way that we would never see happen in any of the captured business media such as CNBC, New York Times, or Fortune.  The Enforcement Director’s subsequent answer (she blamed the victim companies and excused the crime) is instructive because it confirmed, as though further confirmation were necessary, that there are in fact two and only two plays in the apologists’ playbook: first, conflate naked short selling with short selling and discuss the benefits of short selling; second, blame the victim companies and excuse the crime.

3:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Regulatory Keynote Address: A View from the Division of Enforcement: Perspectives and Priorities
Linda C. Thomsen, Director of the Division of Enforcement, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
Introduced and moderated by: Michael J. Ryan, Senior Vice President and Executive Director, Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “You spent a lot of time talking about insider trading and penny stock fraud, but you failed to mention an issue that’s of great concern to the Chamber, and that is naked short selling and the unsettled trades that can result from that. How can the Commission claim that it is serious about enforcement when millions of trades fail to settle every day and companies remain on Reg SHO Threshold Lists for years and years? And, second part of the question, why is the new rule 10b-21 necessary when, as Commissioner Casey pointed out, it makes illegal activity that is already illegal?;

SEC ENFORCEMENT DIRECTOR: “Um… I didn’t hear all of it, unfortunately, but as to the issue of short selling, we recognize that short selling is -“

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “My question was not about short selling. We all know that short selling is legal, and a necessary and efficient part of the market process. I’m talking about naked short selling-the selling of shares one does not have in inventory and probably has no intention of locating or borrowing.”

SEC ENFORCEMENT DIRECTOR: “As to naked short selling, and more generally market manipulation generally (sic), it is an area we are focused on. We have seen fewer cases in that arena because, often times, this is not necessarily with respect to naked shorts, but shorting or market manipulation more generally, because often the components of something that might look to be manipulative are all legal trades as you point out. So it’s a hard case to bring, which is not to say that it isn’t something that we don’t investigate, because we do. So I .. hear and understand the frustration of many on the subject of short selling generally. When we hear complaints about short selling-and, frankly, it is both short and naked short, it is a combination of both-we routinely hear from companies who’ve come in, who worry that they’re being shorted in an illegal way. We routinely take all that information in and look into it. And often times, as I think many defense counsel would be happy to tell you, when we dig in, what we find is that some of the information that has caused people to be shorting is actually true as to the company, and we may very well be confronted with two issues, one on the company and its disclosure side as well as on the trading side. But they’re very difficult cases, which is not to say that we aren’t focused on them and interested in them and indeed this new focus that we have on some smaller companies and smaller issuers will wrap some of those concerns into their focus as well.”

As you may have gathered, that SEC Enforcement Director was Linda Thomsen.

That would be the same Linda Thomsen who, for the entire 14 year duration of her service in the Enforcement Division of the SEC (the last four as Director), missed the $67-billion-and-counting walking Ponzi scheme/human brown stain known as Bernie Madoff, though concerned citizen Harry Markopolis not only did the work for the Enforcement Division, he all but spray-painted his findings on the lovely Italian marble of the SEC’s posh new DC headquarters.

That would also be the Linda Thomsen who, regarding Mr. Markopolis, acquitted herself so handily in this now-famous exchange with New York Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman.

That would be the same Linda Thomsen against whom the SEC’s Office of the Inspector General recommended disciplanary action for her role in hanging out to dry SEC Senior Investigator Gary Aguirre, due to his impertinence in trying to subpoena Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack simply because a trail of clues in “the most important insider trading case in 30 years” led directly to him.  Aguirre had failed to regonize that the law of the land does not apply to Mr. Mack because he has too much “juice“, as Aguirre’s boss Robert Hanson put it while shutting down the investigation. According to a subsequent report of the United State Senate Judiciary Comittee, by “juice” Hanson meant, “meaning they could directly contact the Director or an Associate Director of Enforcement. That Director was, again, Linda Thomsen, and the Associate Director was Paul Berger, who was, at the time of these events, negotiating for a job with Mr. Mack’s law firm, Debevoise Plimpton, a job which Mr. Berger ultimately took. That report by the US Senate Judiciary Committee summarized the culture of Enforcement Division under Director Linda Thomsen:

Staff Attorney Gary Aguirre said that his supervisor warned him that it would be difficult to obtain approval for a subpoena of John Mack due to his ‘very powerful political connections.’ Aguirre’s claim is corroborated by internal SEC emails, including one from his supervisor, Robert Hanson. Hanson also told Aguirre that Mack’s counsel would have ‘juice,’ meaning they could directly contact the Director or an Associate Director of Enforcement.

SEC management delayed Mack’s testimony for over a year, until days after the statute of limitations expired. After Aguirre complained about his supervisor’s reference to Mack’s ‘political clout,’ SEC management offered conflicting and shifting explanations.

The SEC fired Gary Aguirre after he reported his supervisor’s comments about Mack’s ‘political connections,’ despite positive performance reviews and a merit pay raise.

After being contacted by a friend in early September 2005, Associate Director Paul Berger authorized the friend to mention his interest in a job with Debevoise & Plimpton. Although that was the same firm that contacted the SEC for information about John Mack’s exposure in the Pequot investigation, Berger did not immediately recuse himself from the Pequot probe. Berger ultimately left the SEC to join Debevoise & Plimpton. When initially questioned, Berger’s answers concerning his employment search were less than forthcoming.

“The SEC’s Office of Inspector General failed to conduct a serious, credible investigation of Aguirre’s claims.”

That would be the same Enforcement Director to whom the SEC’s new Inspector General was obliquely referring, in page after page, for 55 pages, in a report explaining how three well-organized  6th graders could have handled the nation’s naked shorting complaints better than did the SEC Director Linda Thomsen’s Enforcement Division.

That Linda Thomsen is the same one whose resumption of employment with white-shoe law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell (I say “resumption” because Ms. Thomsen worked at Davis Polk until she joined the SEC in 1995) was announced today in this gem (“SEC Enforcement Chief Joins Davis Polk“) from the Blog of Legal Times (“Law and Lobbying in the Nation’s Capital”).

The announcement reads, with no detectable irony:

Linda Thomsen, who headed the SEC’s enforcement division until February, is starting as a partner in the firm’s white-collar defense and government investigations and enforcement practices in June. She will be joining former SEC commissioner Annette Nazareth, who started at Davis Polk last year, and Robert Colby, who joined the D.C. office this year after serving as deputy director of the SEC’s trading and markets division…

Thomsen practiced in Davis Polk’s New York office before joining the SEC in 1995. She started at the commission as assistant chief litigation counsel and went on to become head of enforcement in 2005. After leaving the SEC earlier this year, Thomsen says, “I had no preconceived ideas about where I was going to go, or what I was going to do.”Translation: “I swear, it never occurred to me to go work for the law firm defending wealthy clients against whom I was overseeing cases until weeks ago.”

At the firm, Thomsen will advise clients on internal investigations and defend them against SEC probes.Comment: Probes such as those ones she was overseeing weeks ago.

After serving at the agency for 14 years, Thomsen says she understands the kind of questions clients should be asking themselves to stay out of trouble with the commission. “I think I know and can see the kind of issues that get people into trouble, and the kinds of processes that cause them to, perhaps, ignore warning signs,” says Thomsen. Comment: Yes, I am sure Ms. Thomsen is one of the world’s most recognized experts on the subject of processes that cause people to ignore warning signs.

Thomsen headed the enforcement division as it came under fire for failing to catch Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, as well as problems that contributed to the meltdown on Wall Street. In response to critics, Thomsen vehemently defends her former division. “I think the professionalism in the division of enforcement is really unparalleled,” she says. ‘If you look at the totality of the enforcement efforts…it’s really a record that I know I’m proud of.”

Considering the world-historic implosion of the US capital market occurring to vamp-til-ready accompaniment of Ms. Thomsen’s blind-piano-player-in-the-cathouse Enforcement Division,  I’m at something of a loss for words with which to comment upon Ms. Thomsen’s “pride”.

But it is nice she landed on her feet.

Posted in Featured Stories, Our Captured Federal Regulator the SEC, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (202)

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The SEC Scandal You Don’t Read About in the Papers


There was an article in The New York Times yesterday about the SEC’s disgraceful ruling that it will take no disciplinary action against the SEC cronies at the center of the Gary Aguirre scandal. Read through the Times’ false veneer of objectivity, and it seems that reporter Walt Bogdanich is trying to say that it’s pretty damn strange that a corrupt SEC has been allowed to adjudicate its own corruption.

Stranger still, no other journalist has expressed outrage over this. Meanwhile, the nation’s mainstream media (The New York Times included) has yet to deliver a story describing the Aguirre scandal’s most important component – the bit that makes it the greatest scandal in the history of the SEC and which helps explain why the commission failed to stop a crime that later contributed to the near total collapse of the American financial system.

Readers of the mainstream media know only that Aguirre is the former SEC attorney who claimed that he was fired for political reasons after pursuing an “insider trading” case against Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and a hedge fund called Pequot Capital. The real story – the one you don’t read in the papers – is that Aguirre has, all along, made it perfectly clear that his investigation – the one he says that Mack “stopped in its tracks” – was about much more than the relatively minor crime of “insider trading.”

Aguirre blew this scandal wide open in 2006, when he wrote an 18-page letter to the U.S. Congress. The letter reads: “I believe our capital markets face a growing risk from lightly or unregulated hedge funds just as our markets did in the 1920s from unregulated pools of money — then called syndicates, trusts or pools. Those unregulated pools were instrumental in delivering the 1929 Crash….There is growing evidence that today’s pools—hedge funds—have advanced and refined the practice of manipulating and cheating other market participants.”

Aguirre then described the investigation that he had led at the SEC. “The investigation was two-pronged,” he wrote. One prong concerned “insider trading.” However, the second, and far more important prong, concerned “market manipulation.” Specifically, Aguirre and his colleagues were investigating “two suspected violations: wash sales and naked shorts.”

“My colleagues,” Aguirre wrote, “believed [the naked short selling] held a greater potential to severely injure the financial markets.”

That is, Aguirre and his colleagues believed that naked short selling (hedge funds selling stock that they have not yet purchased or borrowed in order to drive down prices and destroy public companies) ranked high among the tactics that “were instrumental in delivering the 1929 Crash” – a repeat of which now seemed entirely possible since the tactic had been “refined” by hedge funds intent on “manipulating and cheating other market participants.” But the SEC rank-and-file’s attempt to investigate this crime was “stopped in its tracks” by SEC leaders who had been corrupted by Wall Street fat cats.

At the time when Aguirre released his letter, a small clique of influential journalists with close ties to certain Wall Street fat cats were going to great lengths to whitewash the crime of naked short selling (see “The Story of Deep Capture” for details). Unsurprisingly, some of these journalists quickly sought to discredit the SEC whistleblower. They reported that Aguirre’s investigation concerned only the minor infraction of insider trading, and that he had failed to present evidence that this minor infraction had occurred. The journalists also declared that Aguirre was untrustworthy – an eccentric who had been fired for poor performance.

After a year long investigation into the matter, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee completely vindicated Aguirre. It noted that Aguirre had been fired just two weeks after his supervisors had raved about his “unmatched dedication” in glowing written evaluations of his performance. It presented clear evidence that Mack’s lawyers were given special access to meetings in which Aguirre’s investigation was discussed. While the SEC was busy quashing the investigation and firing Aguirre for complaining about it, Paul Berger, then the SEC associate director of enforcement, was interviewing for a job at Mack’s law firm.

The Senate investigators concluded that they were “deeply troubled” by the SEC’s failure to look into Aguirre’s claims. “At worst,” the Senate report said, “the picture is colored with overtones of a possible cover-up.”

As part of this cover-up, the SEC eventually claimed that although Aguirre had been fired, the commission had nonetheless pressed forward with its “insider trading” investigation, finding no evidence that Pequot or Mack and committed any violations. However, the SEC has yet to reveal whether its rank-and-file were allowed to complete their investigation into the naked short selling that had the greater potential to “seriously injure the financial markets.”

SEC leaders remained uninterested in the crime until this past summer. Data for June showed that “failures to deliver” (phantom stock sold by naked short sellers) had peaked at more than 2 billion shares – an all time record. More important, the SEC’s cronies on Wall Street were now victims of the very crime that they had perpetrated and covered up. An avalanche of naked short selling, timed to coincide with a false news report on CNBC, had sparked the run on the bank that took down Bear Stearns. Now, other Wall Street institutions (including, yes, Morgan Stanley) were getting similarly clobbered. In mid-July, the SEC pronounced that naked short selling had the potential to “seriously damage” the financial system. It issued an “emergency order” protecting 19 big financial institutions (including Morgan Stanley) from the crime.

That kept the big banks safe for a time. But ultimately, short-sellers proved to be more skilled at cronyism than their former accomplices at the big banks. In August, under pressure from the short seller lobby, the SEC lifted its “emergency order.” In the next three weeks, a half-dozen major financial institutions were eliminated or nationalized. Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack (no doubt regretting that he had quashed the Aguirre investigation) hollered that he was next — that law-breaking short sellers were taking down his bank. The SEC responded by banning short selling outright in 900-plus companies. Meanwhile, everyone from Hillary Clinton to John McCain implicated naked short selling in the biggest financial cataclysm since 1929.

A few weeks later the SEC inspector general issued a 191-page report vindicating Gary Aguirre. The otherwise detailed report conspicuously failed to mention the naked short selling component of Aguirre’s investigation, but it contained many of the same findings that the Senate had described. The report, compiled over many months, concluded that Mack’s interference with Aguirre’s investigation raised “serious questions about the impartiality and fairness” of the SEC. The inspector general recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Aguirre’s supervisors, including SEC Director of Enforcement Linda Thomsen.

But last Friday, having spent no more than a few days reviewing the evidence, an SEC administrative judge declared that the SEC did not mishandle the Aguirre case, and that no disciplinary action would be taken. As Bogdanich’s story in The New York Times makes clear (though in not so many words), the ruling stinks to high hell.

For one, it remains unclear why in the world an SEC judge, as opposed to an independent court, is ruling on this matter. For another, it seems that the judge, Brenda Murray, was not even acting in the capacity of a judge. Rather, she issued her not-guilty verdict in the capacity of “an individual” who was asked by the SEC executive director to evaluate the inspector general’s findings.

In other words, there is good evidence that the leaders of our nation’s market regulator are as corrupt as Banana Republic cops on the brothel beat – that they have engaged in a cover-up that might have helped rock the very foundations of the American financial system – but this evidence will be evaluated in no court. There will be no legal proceeding whatsoever. Instead, an “individual” at the SEC, as a favor to the SEC executive director, says the SEC did no wrong…and that’s it – end of story.

Really, end of story. Because, aside from Walt Bogdanich at The New York Times (a paper that won’t call an “outrage” by its proper name, and which seems incapable of printing the words “naked short selling”), no mainstream journalist seems to give a flying hoot.

* * * * * * * *

Contact Mark Mitchell at mitch0033@gmail.com

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The SEC Scandal You Don't Read About in the Papers


There was an article in The New York Times yesterday about the SEC’s disgraceful ruling that it will take no disciplinary action against the SEC cronies at the center of the Gary Aguirre scandal. Read through the Times’ false veneer of objectivity, and it seems that reporter Walt Bogdanich is trying to say that it’s pretty damn strange that a corrupt SEC has been allowed to adjudicate its own corruption.

Stranger still, no other journalist has expressed outrage over this. Meanwhile, the nation’s mainstream media (The New York Times included) has yet to deliver a story describing the Aguirre scandal’s most important component – the bit that makes it the greatest scandal in the history of the SEC and which helps explain why the commission failed to stop a crime that later contributed to the near total collapse of the American financial system.

Readers of the mainstream media know only that Aguirre is the former SEC attorney who claimed that he was fired for political reasons after pursuing an “insider trading” case against Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and a hedge fund called Pequot Capital. The real story – the one you don’t read in the papers – is that Aguirre has, all along, made it perfectly clear that his investigation – the one he says that Mack “stopped in its tracks” – was about much more than the relatively minor crime of “insider trading.”

Aguirre blew this scandal wide open in 2006, when he wrote an 18-page letter to the U.S. Congress. The letter reads: “I believe our capital markets face a growing risk from lightly or unregulated hedge funds just as our markets did in the 1920s from unregulated pools of money — then called syndicates, trusts or pools. Those unregulated pools were instrumental in delivering the 1929 Crash….There is growing evidence that today’s pools—hedge funds—have advanced and refined the practice of manipulating and cheating other market participants.”

Aguirre then described the investigation that he had led at the SEC. “The investigation was two-pronged,” he wrote. One prong concerned “insider trading.” However, the second, and far more important prong, concerned “market manipulation.” Specifically, Aguirre and his colleagues were investigating “two suspected violations: wash sales and naked shorts.”

“My colleagues,” Aguirre wrote, “believed [the naked short selling] held a greater potential to severely injure the financial markets.”

That is, Aguirre and his colleagues believed that naked short selling (hedge funds selling stock that they have not yet purchased or borrowed in order to drive down prices and destroy public companies) ranked high among the tactics that “were instrumental in delivering the 1929 Crash” – a repeat of which now seemed entirely possible since the tactic had been “refined” by hedge funds intent on “manipulating and cheating other market participants.” But the SEC rank-and-file’s attempt to investigate this crime was “stopped in its tracks” by SEC leaders who had been corrupted by Wall Street fat cats.

At the time when Aguirre released his letter, a small clique of influential journalists with close ties to certain Wall Street fat cats were going to great lengths to whitewash the crime of naked short selling (see “The Story of Deep Capture” for details). Unsurprisingly, some of these journalists quickly sought to discredit the SEC whistleblower. They reported that Aguirre’s investigation concerned only the minor infraction of insider trading, and that he had failed to present evidence that this minor infraction had occurred. The journalists also declared that Aguirre was untrustworthy – an eccentric who had been fired for poor performance.

After a year long investigation into the matter, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee completely vindicated Aguirre. It noted that Aguirre had been fired just two weeks after his supervisors had raved about his “unmatched dedication” in glowing written evaluations of his performance. It presented clear evidence that Mack’s lawyers were given special access to meetings in which Aguirre’s investigation was discussed. While the SEC was busy quashing the investigation and firing Aguirre for complaining about it, Paul Berger, then the SEC associate director of enforcement, was interviewing for a job at Mack’s law firm.

The Senate investigators concluded that they were “deeply troubled” by the SEC’s failure to look into Aguirre’s claims. “At worst,” the Senate report said, “the picture is colored with overtones of a possible cover-up.”

As part of this cover-up, the SEC eventually claimed that although Aguirre had been fired, the commission had nonetheless pressed forward with its “insider trading” investigation, finding no evidence that Pequot or Mack and committed any violations. However, the SEC has yet to reveal whether its rank-and-file were allowed to complete their investigation into the naked short selling that had the greater potential to “seriously injure the financial markets.”

SEC leaders remained uninterested in the crime until this past summer. Data for June showed that “failures to deliver” (phantom stock sold by naked short sellers) had peaked at more than 2 billion shares – an all time record. More important, the SEC’s cronies on Wall Street were now victims of the very crime that they had perpetrated and covered up. An avalanche of naked short selling, timed to coincide with a false news report on CNBC, had sparked the run on the bank that took down Bear Stearns. Now, other Wall Street institutions (including, yes, Morgan Stanley) were getting similarly clobbered. In mid-July, the SEC pronounced that naked short selling had the potential to “seriously damage” the financial system. It issued an “emergency order” protecting 19 big financial institutions (including Morgan Stanley) from the crime.

That kept the big banks safe for a time. But ultimately, short-sellers proved to be more skilled at cronyism than their former accomplices at the big banks. In August, under pressure from the short seller lobby, the SEC lifted its “emergency order.” In the next three weeks, a half-dozen major financial institutions were eliminated or nationalized. Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack (no doubt regretting that he had quashed the Aguirre investigation) hollered that he was next — that law-breaking short sellers were taking down his bank. The SEC responded by banning short selling outright in 900-plus companies. Meanwhile, everyone from Hillary Clinton to John McCain implicated naked short selling in the biggest financial cataclysm since 1929.

A few weeks later the SEC inspector general issued a 191-page report vindicating Gary Aguirre. The otherwise detailed report conspicuously failed to mention the naked short selling component of Aguirre’s investigation, but it contained many of the same findings that the Senate had described. The report, compiled over many months, concluded that Mack’s interference with Aguirre’s investigation raised “serious questions about the impartiality and fairness” of the SEC. The inspector general recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Aguirre’s supervisors, including SEC Director of Enforcement Linda Thomsen.

But last Friday, having spent no more than a few days reviewing the evidence, an SEC administrative judge declared that the SEC did not mishandle the Aguirre case, and that no disciplinary action would be taken. As Bogdanich’s story in The New York Times makes clear (though in not so many words), the ruling stinks to high hell.

For one, it remains unclear why in the world an SEC judge, as opposed to an independent court, is ruling on this matter. For another, it seems that the judge, Brenda Murray, was not even acting in the capacity of a judge. Rather, she issued her not-guilty verdict in the capacity of “an individual” who was asked by the SEC executive director to evaluate the inspector general’s findings.

In other words, there is good evidence that the leaders of our nation’s market regulator are as corrupt as Banana Republic cops on the brothel beat – that they have engaged in a cover-up that might have helped rock the very foundations of the American financial system – but this evidence will be evaluated in no court. There will be no legal proceeding whatsoever. Instead, an “individual” at the SEC, as a favor to the SEC executive director, says the SEC did no wrong…and that’s it – end of story.

Really, end of story. Because, aside from Walt Bogdanich at The New York Times (a paper that won’t call an “outrage” by its proper name, and which seems incapable of printing the words “naked short selling”), no mainstream journalist seems to give a flying hoot.

* * * * * * * *

Contact Mark Mitchell at mitch0033@gmail.com

Posted in The Deep Capture Campaign, The Mitchell ReportComments (0)

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