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Hedge Fund Legend Charged With Insider Trading

September 21, 2016, 3:55 PM UTC
Halftime Report
HALFTIME REPORT -- Pictured: Leon Cooperman, Omega Advisors Chairman & CEO, at the 20th Annual Sohn Investment Conference in New York City on May 4, 2015. -- (Photo by: Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CNBC NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Leon Cooperman often gets center stage at major hedge fund conferences to spout his knowledge about the market and stocks.

He may soon get to take center stage at his own trial. What’s more, it appears that some of that wisdom was less wise and more weaselly than it initially appeared.

On Wednesday, Cooperman was charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading. The SEC says Cooperman used his status as a large shareholder in order to squeeze insider information out of an executive at Atlas Pipeline Partners, a small energy company. According to the regulators’ complaint, Cooperman promised the executives that he would not trade on the information. But Cooperman did anyway.

After obtaining the information, which was about a pending sale of a natural gas processing facility, Cooperman allegedly bought up a bunch of additional shares in Atlas as well as derivates that would benefit if the stock of the company rose. After the sale was officially announced in July 2010, shares of Atlas shot up more than 31%. Cooperman and his funds made about $4 million in “ill-gotten” profits based on his nonpublic information, the SEC alleges.

That’s not where the story ends. The SEC says that around the end of 2011, after Cooperman and his hedge fund Omega Advisors found out that it was being investigated by the SEC, the investor tried to cover his tracks. According to the SEC, Cooperman called the executive who gave him the information and tried to get him to create a story that would get Cooperman off the hook, asking the executive to deny sharing confidential information. There is no indication that the executive cooperated. The SEC declined to name the executive, and no one else was charged with insider trading connected to the case, other than Cooperman and his fund.

Atlas was acquired by Targa Resources Partners (NGLS) last year.

Cooperman got his start at Goldman Sachs, and launched his hedge fund firm in 1991, when the hedge fund industry was still small. At one time, he had one of the biggest hedge funds around. But his performance has been disappointing recently. Cooperman, for instance, was a large investor in Ocwen (OCN), the large mortgage service that ran into major problems two years ago. Earlier this year, Institutional Investor reported that investors had pulled $2 billion from his fund. Through April of this year, Omega was down nearly 5% in 2016.

In 2011, Cooperman penned a public letter to Barack Obama, at one point question whether the president’s policies were “a cynical, populist appeal to his base by a president struggling in the polls.” Cooperman label Obama’s attacks on hedge funders and Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis simply class warfare.

At a hedge fund conference in May, Cooperman said that hedge fund managers were under assault, and that he was considering leaving the business.

Cooperman has been in legal hot water for a while. In 2014, Cooperman settled charges with the SEC that he failed to file proper disclosures when making stock trades. Back in March, he told his investors that regulators were considering bringing civil charges against his firm. Once again, in its insider trading complaint Wednesday, the SEC says Cooperman failed to file proper paperwork when trading stocks in 40 cases since at least 2010.

In a statement responding to the SEC’s charges, Cooperman said the efforts of the SEC against him are seriously misguided.

The SEC said that it is seeking to get Cooperman and his fund to pay back the $4 million in allegedly ill-gotten gains, as well as fines of up to three times as much, for a potential penalty of more than $16 million in total. The regulators also want to ban Cooperman from acting as a director or officer of a public company in the future. The SEC declined to comment as to whether it referred the case to the Department of Justice for criminal conduct. The SEC can only bring civil charges.