ATTORNEY: TAMAR A. WEINRIB
Pomerantz Monitor, September/October 2013
In August, the SEC scored a much-needed win when a nine-member jury, after deliberating for two days, found Fabrice Tourre, a former Goldman Sachs bond trader once known as “Fabulous Fab,” liable on six of seven civil fraud charges.
The SEC brought the action in 2010 against both Mr. Tourre and Goldman Sachs, accusing both of misleading investors about a complex mortgage-based financial product known as “Abacus 2007-AC1.” Abacus was a “collateralized debt obligation,” a financial vehicle based on a collection of underlying mortgage-related securities. Tourre played a major role in putting Abacus together; but he (and Goldman) allegedly failed to disclose to potential investors that hedge fund titan John Paulson, a key Goldman Sachs client, had also played a major role in selecting the securities underlying Abacus. Paulson’s involvement was critical because he himself made a huge bet against Abacus, selling millions of shares short, and made a killing when Abacus failed. In other words, the SEC claimed that Abacus was secretly designed to fail so that Paulson could make a killing at the expense of Goldman’s other clients.
Goldman settled the SEC’s claims some time ago, agreeing to pay a $550 million fine, without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Abacus, and the large fine it generated, heavily damaged Goldman’s reputation, helping to earn it the sobriquet “great vampire squid.”
Even after Goldman settled, Tourre fought on, and lost. Tellingly, his lawyers opted not to call any witnesses at trial, an interesting strategy which perhaps reflected the weakness of their case. The SEC called two witnesses, Laura Schwartz from the ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation, and Gail Kreitman, a former Goldman saleswoman, who testified that they were misled about who was investing in Abacus. Also key to Mr. Tourre’s downfall was a number of emails to his girlfriend, which he called “love letters,” in which he joked about selling toxic real estate bonds to “widows and orphans.”
As of Monitor press time, Mr. Tourre was planning to ask the court at the end of September to either overturn his securities fraud verdict or grant a new jury trial. If the judge declines that request, the question will then become one of punishment. Mr. Tourre faces three potential remedies. First, the court can impose civil monetary penalties ranging from $5,000 to $130,000 for each violation. Second, the court can order that Mr. Tourre forfeit any profits he received from his violations, though it is unclear at this point what that would encompass. Third, Mr. Tourre could also face an administrative proceeding before the SEC, which could permanently bar him from any future association with the financial industry. One potential obstacle for the SEC in pursuing a bar, however, is that it obtained the power to do this when Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, three years after Mr. Tourre’s violations occurred. It is unclear whether the SEC’s authority to issue a bar applies retroactively. Given that Goldman continues to bankroll all of Mr. Tourre’s legal fees, it is likely he will appeal any bar order, challenging retroactivity, and continue to drag this case on further.
Mr. Tourre is now enrolled in a doctoral economics program at the University of Chicago and seems to be gearing up for a future in academia. Other than damage to his reputation, which he has already incurred in spades, it is questionable whether a bar would make much of a difference.
Meanwhile, the Tourre trial, though clearly a success for the SEC, has led many to question why the agency continues to pursue mid-level employees like Mr. Tourre while leaving the high-level executives unscathed. Mr. Tourre clearly did not commit these violations on his own.