Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into whether Goldman Sachs Group Inc. or its employees committed securities fraud in connection with its mortgage trading, people familiar with the probe say.
The investigation from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is at a preliminary stage, stemmed from a referral from the Securities and Exchange Commission, these people say. The SEC recently filed civil securities-fraud charges against the big Wall Street firm and a trader in its mortgage group. Goldman and the trader say they have done nothing wrong and are fighting the civil charges.
Many criminal investigations are launched without the government filing charges. In this instance, prosecutors haven’t determined whether they will bring charges in the case, said the people familiar with the matter.
The criminal probe raises the stakes for Goldman, Wall Street’s most powerful firm. The investigation is centered on different evidence than the SEC’s civil case, the people say. It couldn’t be determined which Goldman deals are being scrutinized in the criminal investigation.
A spokesperson for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment. Goldman declined comment.
The development comes amid public calls for more Wall Street accountability for the industry’s role in the financial crisis. Though there are multiple ongoing criminal and civil investigations, no Wall Street executives connected with the meltdown have been convicted of criminal charges. During congressional hearings this week into Goldman’s role in the crisis, legislators grilled Goldman executives for nearly 11 hours.
The SEC and Justice Department often coordinate their actions on investigations. The probe underscores heightened efforts by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office in prosecuting white-collar and Wall Street crime. It is in the midst of pursuing the largest insider-trading case in a generation, charging 21 individuals and negotiating 11 guilty pleas in that matter.
But the Goldman probe presents a significant challenge for the government. Prosecutors last year lost a high-profile fraud case against two former Bear Stearns Cos. executives, in the first major criminal case linked to the financial meltdown.
Prosecutors had accused the Bear Stearns employees of lying to investors in 2007 about the health of two funds that eventually collapsed. The case centered on what the government viewed as incriminating emails indicating the traders knew the mortgage market would fall but didn’t disclose that view to investors.
To bring any criminal charges in the Goldman matter, prosecutors would need to believe they had gathered evidence that showed that the firm or its employees knowingly committed fraud in their mortgage business. Proving such intent to break the law typically is the toughest hurdle for prosecutors to clear.
Another stumbling block: Such financial cases can be highly complex. Few outside of Wall Street understand arcane products such as collateralized debt obligations, the pools of mortgage-related holdings at the heart of the SEC civil case against Goldman.
On April 16, the SEC charged Goldman and an employee, Fabrice Tourre, with securities fraud in a civil suit relating to a mortgage transaction, known as Abacus 2007-AC1, a deal the government said was designed to fail. The SEC alleged that Goldman duped its clients by failing to disclose that hedge fund Paulson & Co. not only helped select the mortgages included in the deal but also bet against the transaction. Both Goldman and Mr. Tourre have denied wrongdoing.
Even the SEC’s case, which is subject to a lesser standard of proof than a criminal case, is viewed as a challenge for regulators. The SEC’s commissioners were split 3-2 along party lines on whether the agency should bring a case.
In battling the SEC charges, Goldman says its investors were sophisticated and knew the underlying securities they were buying. Goldman says it wasn’t required to disclose who provided input into the deal or the views of its clients in the transaction.
The congressional hearing involved numerous other mortgage deals Goldman arranged in 2006 and 2007. Lawmakers criticized Goldman and its executives for allegedly stacking the deck against clients during the market meltdown in 2007.
Some of the emails released by regulators, lawmakers and Goldman suggest a callous attitude among Goldman employees toward the risks involved in some of the Goldman mortgage deals, including one in which a Goldman employee referred to a mortgage transaction the firm sold to investors as a “sh—y” deal.
Over the years, the government has been reluctant to criminally charge financial firms with wrongdoing because the charge itself can cause a business to implode. Some investing clients can’t or won’t trade with a firm facing such a taint.
Indeed, in the more than two-century history of the U.S. financial markets, no major financial firm has survived criminal charges. Securities firms E.F. Hutton &Co. and Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. crumbled after being indicted in the 1980s. In 2002 Arthur Andersen LLP went bankrupt after it was convicted of obstruction of justice for its role in covering up an investigation into Enron Corp. The conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
In recent years, some financial firms have agreed to “deferred prosecutions,” in which they agree to a probationary period for which they won’t commit any future wrongdoing.
That’s what Prudential Securities Inc. famously did in 1994 when that securities firm faced criminal charges that it misled investors about the risks and rewards of limited-partnership investments. Prudential agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution, as well as fines and restitution, to end a criminal securities-fraud investigation.
—Susanne Craig contributed to this article.