By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. securities regulators were united in their decision to file civil charges against billionaire hedge fund owner Steven A. Cohen last week, in a high-stakes case that could result in Cohen being barred from the industry, people familiar with the case told Reuters.
The charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Cohen still fall short of what the SEC had hoped for.
The agency has been struggling to uncover evidence implicating Cohen with insider-trading, one of those people said.
In a last-minute 9 a.m. meeting on Friday, with a five-year statute of limitations deadline approaching, enforcement lawyers presented SEC commissioners with a lengthy memo urging them to vote to charge Cohen with failing to supervise former SAC Capital Advisors portfolio manager Mathew Martoma and SAC executive Michael Steinberg, sources said.
Both Martoma and Steinberg are facing criminal and civil insider trading charges.
SEC Chair Mary Jo White, an independent, and Democratic SEC Commissioners Elisse Walter and Luis Aguilar attended the meeting and subsequently voted in favor of filing charges, these people said.
SEC Republican Commissioner Troy Paredes was on a plane en route to Texas at the time, but he cast a yes vote after he landed, according to one of the sources.
The SEC's other Republican commissioner, Daniel Gallagher, was out of town last week and did not participate in any of the SEC's closed door enforcement meetings.
Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for SAC Capital, declined to comment beyond his statement on Friday, in which he said the SEC's case was without merit and that Cohen intended to fight the charges.
Some people are seeing the SEC's case against Cohen as an example of White's pledge to get tough and flex the SEC's enforcement muscles.
She has already established a new policy in which the SEC will occasionally try to extract admissions of wrongdoing in settlements, or else force the case to trial.
Others internally, however, see the Cohen case as an effort to save face after several long, hard years of investigating him for insider-trading.
In all of that time, there has not been enough evidence to suggest he engaged in insider-trading. In addition, despite the fact that several of his employees have been charged criminally with insider-trading, no one has stepped forward to testify against him as a government witness.
Nevertheless, the filing of the Cohen case last week was one of several high-profile actions by the SEC in what appears to be pattern of cracking down on alleged law-breakers.
On Thursday, the SEC also voted behind closed doors in a 3-1 vote to reject a deal between the enforcement division and hedge fund manager Philip Falcone and his hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners.
That settlement was rejected amid concerns it was too lax, a person told Reuters last week.
In addition, the SEC also charged the city of Miami and its former budget director with fraud on Friday in a rare case in which the SEC accused the city of being a repeat offender by violating a prior cease-and-desist order for similar misconduct in 2003.
Cohen represents one of the most high-profile defendants to face SEC charges this year.
In March, SAC agreed to pay a record $616 million penalty to settle a separate SEC lawsuit arising from an investigation of trading on illegal information.
In this latest case, the charges are not fraud-based and do not carry stiff penalties. But in a move that could greatly curtail Cohen's income, the SEC is seeking to bar him from managing other people's money.
It is still unclear whether the SEC will seek a lifetime bar, or a bar for a shorter duration.
But even a temporary industry bar could pose a major hassle.
That's because the process to apply for re-admission after the bar expires is tougher for investment advisers and broker-dealers than some other professions, such as lawyers.
In order to be re-admitted, the person must demonstrate how he or she will be supervised so that investors will not be harmed before the SEC will agree to sign off.
For someone like Cohen, it might be difficult to demonstrate how he would be supervised.
Assuming the case eventually does go before an SEC administrative law judge, the SEC could try to call him to testify.
Unlike a federal court system, however, the SEC's administrative court is less transparent - a fact that could make it more difficult for Cohen's investors and the general public to follow the trial.
In federal court cases, the filings by all the parties and the accompanying exhibits are often available online in a database that can be accessed by the public for a fee.
At the SEC, only the civil charges, orders and decisions are routinely posted online.
The other documents filed often must be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request - a lengthy process that can take months or even years.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)