Former S.E.C. Official Said to Be Subject of Criminal Inquiry
May 14, 2011
By EDWARD WYATT
WASHINGTON -- A former Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement official who has been accused of repeatedly blocking efforts to investigate R. Allen Stanford, the Houston financier charged with running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, is the subject of a federal criminal inquiry for having done legal work for Mr. Stanford after leaving the S.E.C., government officials said Friday.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News
H. David Kotz, the S.E.C. inspector general, left, and Robert Khuzami, director of enforcement.
The former official, Spencer C. Barasch, is now a private-sector lawyer in Texas. He has represented clients
dealing with the agency, including a defendant charged last month with financial fraud by the S.E.C. in federal
court in Dallas.
Those disclosures came Friday at a Congressional hearing into the S.E.C.'s failures to stop the Stanford Ponzi scheme.
Mr. Barasch led the enforcement bureau in the S.E.C.'s Fort Worth office and played "a significant role" in numerous decisions by the office not to investigate Mr. Stanford despite repeated accusations of fraudulent behavior, according to a report the S.E.C.'s inspector general released last year.
After leaving the agency, Mr. Barasch did legal work for Mr. Stanford despite being told multiple times by the S.E.C.'s ethics office that it was improper, S.E.C. officials said at the hearing. Mr. Stanford was eventually charged with fraud and is scheduled for trial later this year. He has denied the charges.
Mr. Barasch's law firm said he had not acted unethically or violated any laws.
Members of the House Financial Services Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee expressed shock that Mr. Barasch, who the inspector general said had blocked efforts to pursue Mr. Stanford at least six times over seven years, continued to practice securities law before the commission.
The S.E.C. can, after an administrative proceeding, bar lawyers from practicing before the commission should it find sufficient wrongdoing. The commission declined on Friday to say whether such a proceeding was under way.
"This is not even defensible," Representative Randy Neugebauer, Republican of Texas and head of the House subcommittee, said at the conclusion of the hearing.
"It is extremely disturbing that we had a culture in agencies that demand high levels of disclosure and integrity, that within that very agency there wasn't a similar amount of integrity," Mr. Neugebauer said. "It's inexcusable."
H. David Kotz, the S.E.C. inspector general, and Robert Khuzami, the director of the division of enforcement, told the House panel on Friday that Mr. Barasch had become the subject of a criminal investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department after Mr. Kotz's report was issued in March 2010.
The S.E.C. also referred Mr. Barasch to the ethics boards of the bar associations in Texas and Washington, Mr. Khuzami said at the hearing.
Mr. Barasch did not respond to a request for comment. Robert V. Jewell, the managing partner of Andrews Kurth, the Texas law firm where Mr. Barasch is the leader of the corporate governance and securities enforcement team, said in a statement that he believed that Mr. Barasch "did not violate conflicts of interest."
"Spencer Barasch served the S.E.C. with honor, integrity and distinction," the statement said. "We disagree with the characterization of Mr. Barasch's involvement put forth by the inspector general in his report last year in regard to the Stanford Financial Group matter. We believe he acted properly during his contacts with the Stanford Financial Group and the Securities and Exchange Commission."
He continued: "We continue to stand by Spencer Barasch; he is and will remain a valued member of the Andrews Kurth team, where he provides our clients with the highest possible quality of advice and counsel."
Asked by Mr. Neugebauer at the hearing whether he thought Mr. Barasch had engaged in unethical behavior, Mr. Khuzami, the enforcement chief, said yes. "Clearly the rules prohibited him from representing Mr. Stanford," Mr. Khuzami said. "So my personal conclusion would be certainly the evidence appears to be the case."
Rule 102(e) of the S.E.C.'s rules of practice says that the commission can bar a lawyer who is found "to be lacking in character or integrity or to have engaged in unethical or improper professional conduct."
But such a finding requires a formal hearing, and the S.E.C. has not initiated a hearing on Mr. Barasch, said John Nester, an S.E.C. spokesman. Mr. Nester declined to comment on whether "any enforcement investigation, including one that might result in an administrative enforcement proceeding against an attorney, is ongoing."
The Congressional hearing once again brought to light problems that the S.E.C., like many government agencies, faces with the "revolving door" of people who go back and forth between government and the private sector.
On Friday, the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, released a study showing that between 2006 and 2010, 219 former S.E.C. employees filed 789 postemployment statements indicating their intent to represent an outside client before the S.E.C.
"The revolving door to high-paying jobs representing Wall Street can undermine the integrity of the S.E.C.," said Michael Smallberg, the investigator for the oversight watchdog group who created the database. "It's not a stretch for the public to wonder whether the promise of future employment affects how S.E.C. regulators treat certain firms."
The study, which used documents obtained from the S.E.C. under the Freedom of Information Act, also found that some former employees had filed the statements within days of leaving the commission. One employee's filing came within two days of leaving; another former employee filed at least 20 statements.
Mr. Nester said the S.E.C. had "a rigorous program to help departing employees meet not just the letter, but also the spirit of the law" on conflicts of interest after they leave the agency.
The Government Accountability Office is conducting a review of post-employment rules, he said, which the S.E.C. is assisting.
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