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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Steve Cohen, Meet Al Capone

More than 80 years after the big-time mobster got busted for tax evasion, the feds may bar a cocky hedge fund manager from trading for his "failure to supervise."
As my 3rd grade nun used to tell us, "Tell me who your
friends are, and I'll tell you who you are."

EDITOR’S NOTE: State Treasurer and likely candidate for Governor Gina Raimondo received the maximum campaign contribution from Cohen’s SAC Capital’s portfolio manager.

Al Capone was a bad boy. How bad? He cheated on his income taxes.

He went to prison in 1931 for that. Not for the people he gunned down, nor for any of the other gross illegalities the guy committed as a notorious Chicago mobster. Tax evasion landed Capone in the slammer.

Now comes Steven Cohen. He’s not known to have killed anyone and is not a mobster. (Capone didn’t think he was one either — he called himself a “businessman.”)

Yet Cohen, a multibillionaire Wall Street hedge-fund huckster, shares with Capone the unpleasant experience of being pursued by the authorities — and possibly getting nailed on the Wall Street equivalent of tax evasion.

Cohen’s hedge fund, SAC Capital, was caught pocketing a gazillion or so in profits through the criminal enterprise of insider trading. But Steve was able to dodge those criminal charges in the usual Wall Street way: by buying off the government. SAC paid the Securities and Exchange Commission about $600 million to make the problem go away, without having to admit guilt or be bothered by a trial. Neat.

Yeah, a $600 million fine would be a death sentence for you and me, but it’s barely a hiccup for Cohen & Company — his outfit typically pulls in about a billion dollars a year just in “management” fees, not counting profits on investments. So Steve skated. Or so he thought. Now, his firm is fighting another criminal case.

And it turns out that Mary Jo White, the new chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is no pushover for hotshot finaglers. Suddenly, Cohen finds himself facing a civil charge: “failure to supervise” his hedge-fund traders. That might seem minor, but like Capone’s tax evasion, it could be very major, for the SEC’s punishment can include being barred from conducting Wall Street business.

See, when regulators have the will, there really are ways to go after Wall Street lawlessness.

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He's also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower