Steven A. Cohen did something unusual when Michael S. Steinberg was arrested on the morning of March 29 and accused of insider trading at Cohen’s $15 billion hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors LP.
Within an hour of the accusations, SAC issued a statement defending the 16-year veteran of the Stamford, Connecticut-based firm. It was the first time SAC had come out publicly in support of an employee who had been charged in the government’s wide-ranging investigation of insider trading.
“Mike has conducted himself professionally and ethically during his long tenure at the firm,” Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman SAC, said in the statement. “We believe him to be a man of integrity.”
SAC is stepping up its public defense as Steinberg’s arrest brings the government’s probe closer to the billionaire hedge-fund founder. Steinberg, who turns 41 this week, is the longest-serving SAC employee to be accused of insider trading while at the firm, and one of Cohen’s most trusted managers.
He joined SAC in 1997, three years after graduating from college, and was part of a group of traders who socialized with Cohen on vacations and at sporting events. Steinberg introduced the hedge-fund owner to his art adviser, and Cohen attended Steinberg’s 1999 New York wedding, according to former colleagues, friends and people with knowledge of SAC.
“Steinberg is another domino that has fallen in a path that leads to a central person at SAC,” said John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School in New York. “He’s one of the few that had direct communications with Cohen.”
In an indictment unsealed March 29, Steinberg was charged by a federal grand jury with five counts of conspiracy and securities fraud. He is accused of being part of a conspiracy that began in late 2007 and continued until 2009. The U.S. said he received and traded on illegal tips from Jon Horvath, a former analyst at Stamford, Connecticut- based SAC, on technology companies Dell Inc. and Nvidia Corp.
Steinberg has pleaded not guilty. Barry Berke, Steinberg’s lawyer, said his client is “caught in the crossfire of aggressive investigations” and that he did nothing wrong. Cohen hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing.
Steinberg is one of two portfolio managers who received and traded on inside information from Horvath, according to a filing by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last month. Bloomberg News identified the second manager as Gabriel Plotkin.
SAC didn’t issue a statement when Horvath was charged in January 2012. The firm did defend Plotkin after Bloomberg News identified him, saying he did nothing wrong and built his career on legitimate research. Unlike Steinberg, Plotkin hasn’t been charged by the government.
Steinberg worked at SAC’s Sigma Capital Management unit and was one of 15 portfolio managers handling technology, media and telecommunications stocks before he was put on paid leave in September. He oversaw as much as $200 million in gross assets, a relatively small amount in a firm where some portfolio managers handle as much as $1 billion, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to discuss their relationship with Steinberg or SAC publicly.
The son of a doctor, Steinberg grew up in Great Neck, a village on Long Island in New York, which is also Cohen’s hometown. After graduating in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, he worked at Wall Street research firm Sanford C. Bernstein before joining SAC at the age of 25.
At SAC, Steinberg was part of a group of former technology portfolio managers and analysts whose careers crossed paths at SAC during the late 1990s, when the hedge fund posted annual returns averaging almost 60 percent, and who have since been linked to the government investigation.
Around the time when he joined, SAC had about 50 employees managing about $450 million, mainly Cohen’s own money, and was starting to transition from a proprietary-trading firm to a hedge fund with outside clients. As part of the process, the firm was expanding its fundamental research and organizing money managers along industries, according to SAC marketing documents dated 2011.
Steinberg sat together with the other technology portfolio managers and analysts on a row in SAC’s former offices in the General Electric building in Stamford, where the hedge fund occupied a floor, according to two of the people.
The group included David Ganek, who around the turn of the century ran the largest technology-stock portfolio after Cohen, his analyst Anthony Chiasson, and portfolio manager Richard Grodin, who had joined SAC around the time Cohen started the firm, the people said. Richard Choo Beng Lee, a Malaysian-born, Duke University graduate, worked as analyst for Steinberg out of SAC’s west coast offices.
SAC at that time was a close-knit firm. Steinberg was among the employees who socialized with Cohen, taking vacations in places like the Caribbean, going to sporting events and parties at Cohen’s mansion, according to a person with knowledge of the firm. SAC held a beach-themed holiday party in 2000 and handed out videos titled the “SAC Family” that featured a slide show of photos of employees, said two of the people.
Cohen was at Steinberg’s bachelor party in the Bahamas and a guest at his wedding in New York, according to three people. Steinberg married Elizabeth Sims in 1999, according to an announcement in the New York Times. Steinberg also introduced Cohen to Sandy Heller, who is Cohen’s longtime art adviser, said two people.
Cohen has owned works by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Last month he bought Pablo Picasso’s “Le Reve” for $155 million, the highest paid by a U.S. collector for work of art, dealers told Bloomberg News.
Steinberg and his colleagues at SAC’s technology teams analyzed markets and gathered information from corporations, helping the hedge fund score returns of 58 percent on average from 1997 to 2000. It was before the SEC introduced in 2000 a rule preventing corporations from disseminating confidential information to select investors before others.
When some of SAC’s technology teams left to start their own hedge funds, Steinberg stayed, moving to SAC’s Sigma unit after that group was started in 2001. There he worked alongside technology portfolio manager Dipak Patel and his analyst Wesley Wang, who had both joined in 2002.
Ganek, after successfully betting against technology stocks amid the 2000 stock market slump, left with Chiasson to start Level Global Investors LP in 2003. The following year Grodin left to co-start a hedge fund, taking Lee with him. Lee later left to co-found his own fund, Spherix Capital LLC.
Several of his former colleagues were eventually swept up in the government’s insider-trading investigation. Lee in 2009 pleaded guilty to securities fraud while at Spherix and cooperated in the investigation of Galleon Group co-founder and convicted insider-trader Raj Rajaratnam. It was the first time a former SAC employee was linked to the government’s probe.
Grodin was among the individuals and firms that were subpoenaed in 2009 as part a broad information request by the government in its case against Galleon Group, a person familiar with the investigation said at the time. He hasn’t been charged with wrongdoing.
The offices of Ganek and Chiasson’s hedge fund, Level Global, were raided by the FBI in 2010, which led to the firm’s liquidation the following year. Chiasson was found guilty in December 2012 of conspiracy to commit securities fraud in an expert-networking case and is waiting to be sentenced. He faces as long as 25 years in prison. Ganek, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in Chiasson’s trial, wasn’t charged in that case.
Wang, who left SAC in 2005, pleaded guilty last year to passing illegal tips to people including Patel and was sentenced in January to two years’ probation. Patel, who ran a five-person team before leaving SAC in 2011, hasn’t been charged with a crime.
Steinberg himself emerged in September as an unindicted co-conspirator in an insider-trading scheme involving Horvath, whom he supervised. Steinberg was put on leave after Horvath pleaded guilty to passing nonpublic information to his portfolio manager, who he said traded on the tips.
On Aug. 26, 2008, two days before Dell Inc. was set to report second-quarter earnings, Horvath e-mailed Steinberg and another portfolio manager, to warn that the computer maker would miss earnings estimates.
“I have a 2nd hand read from someone at the company,” Horvath said in the e-mail, which provided details on gross margins, expenditures and revenue. “Please keep to yourself as obviously not well known.”
Steinberg responded: “Yes normally we would never divulge data like this, so please be discreet. Thanks.”
Dressed in a dark sweater and slacks, Steinberg was led into a Manhattan federal courtroom in handcuffs. At the 30-minute hearing, his bail was set at $3 million.
Steinberg’s “trading decisions were based on detailed analysis as well as information that he understood had been properly obtained through the types of channels that institutional investors rely upon on a daily basis,” said Berke, his lawyer.
Steinberg lives in Manhattan in a Park Avenue apartment, which he bought for $8 million in 2009, according to Streeteasy.com.
He co-founded Natan, a network of young philanthropists who hold events to promote Jewish culture and Israel, according to its website.
Steinberg and his wife, along with Ganek and his wife and his hedge fund Level Global, were listed as supporters of a New York charity co-founded by Grodin. The charity’s 2007 gala auctioned a breakfast with Cohen at his Greenwich, Connecticut, home.
Steinberg has had health issues recently, according to two people. He had an aortic aneurysm several years ago, the people said. He faces as long as 20 years in prison if convicted.