Sunday, February 5, 2012

The SEC's Record with Large Ponzi Schemes: Not So Hot

I've been listening to Harry Markopolos's book, "No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller" (I recommend it by the way) and have been surprised at how much of the book is devoted to criticizing the SEC. From Harry's account, the SEC totally dropped the ball and was incompetent, corrupt or both in how it handled the Madoff case. I personally think he has a pretty good argument and that the SEC has managed to avoid serious consequences even though the Madoff case was a tragedy that they could have prevented.

Well, now that the Stanford Ponzi scheme is being tried, we are learning that the SEC also dropped the ball with Sir Charles. It may be that the SEC really doesn't understand Ponzi schemes or that they are underfunded, undereducated, understaffed and under-incentivized. All we know for sure is that they appear to be underperforming. Reuters has an article that talks about how Sir Charles was able to keep the SEC at bay for so many years while he built his Ponzi empire, complete with retail offices in the U.S. I recommend it for further insight.

One claim by Markopolos is that the SEC staff are all basically looking for a job in industry to make more money. As such, when they go to investigate a firm, they also ask for a job application. The Reuters article seems to add a second witness to this claim as it describes a former SEC investigator by the name of Barasch and his role in helping Stanford stay out of the SEC's crosshairs:

Barasch was told at the time by an SEC ethics officer that he was legally precluded from representing Stanford. Barasch went to work for Stanford anyway. In a later investigation of the failure to catch Stanford earlier, the SEC Inspector General asked Barasch why he did so. His reply, according to the Inspector General's report: "Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich over this case. Okay? And I hated being on the sidelines." 
FBI agents and prosecutors also uncovered evidence that on at least two occasions Barasch sought confidential information regarding the SEC's probe of Stanford during his brief representation of the banker, Justice Department officials said in court records and a press release. 
In agreeing to pay the fine, Barasch denied any misconduct, settling the matter "to avoid the expense and uncertainty of protracted litigation," his attorney, Paul Coggins said.
Another claim by Markopolos is that the SEC seemed to avoid taking on the Madoff case because it was too large and complex. Instead, they went after cases that Harry describes as fleas while the elephant (Madoff) was running free. This Reuters article also seems to bear this out in the following quote:
In 1997, 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2005, according to internal agency records seen by Reuters, examiners for the SEC recommended that the agency investigate Stanford. In three of those instances, Barasch, at the time an SEC official in Ft. Worth, personally overruled the examiners' recommendations, according to those records. Those decisions helped the Ponzi scheme to continue unabated for several additional years, costing investors additional billions of dollars, according to a report by the SEC's Inspector General. 
Barasch told the SEC Inspector General that he made those decisions because he was not sure the SEC had the statutory authority or jurisdiction to investigate. He blamed his superiors and a broader culture within the SEC for pressuring the staff not to pursue complex and difficult cases, according to the Inspector General report. 
Apparently, Barasch was able to help Stanford both while he worked for the SEC and after he went to work for Sir Allen (i.e. Stanford) himself. Sounds like a bad case of a corrupted fraud investigator. I have a feeling I will be reading another book in the future about how the SEC dropped the ball in the Stanford Ponzi scheme too, costing thousands of people billions of dollars.

No comments:

Post a Comment