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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Of Insider-Trading, Informants,and Wiretaps

"Wall Street Meets the 'Wire,'" is a post from earlier this week on White Collar Crime Prof Blog, discussing the criminal case against billionaire hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam for insider-trading. Here's a link to the news story on Bloomberg. The post focuses on the unusually aggressive use of wiretaps in the investigation, and asks whether the government was authorized under the federal wiretap statute to do so given the availability of cooperating informants. As the post explains:
Title 18 U.S.C. § 2518(3)(c) provides that a court issuing a wiretap authorization order must determine whether normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous. This "necessity requirement" obligates the government to set forth a full and complete statement of specific circumstances explaining why traditional investigative techniques were insufficient or the application must be denied. In determining the sufficiency of an affidavit, a reviewing court must ensure that the issuing court properly performed [its] function and did not 'serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police'. The government is not under an obligation to exhaust all alternative means of investigation in satisfying the necessity requirement but, neither should it be able to ignore avenues of investigation that appear both fruitful and cost-effective.
Given that the government had three co-conspirators, including one as early as January 2006, acting as informants and cooperating witnesses, and that these individuals had unfettered access to Rajaratnam and others involved in the alleged conspiracies, the question arises whether the government deliberately stalled this investigation and actively resisted utilizing normal investigative techniques, hoping to induce the court into believing that only a wiretap could succeed.

The post doesn't mention it, but the government need not even get court permission for electronic surveillance if it has so-called "third party consent," i.e. if the informant agrees to record the conversation. 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(c).

This story illustrates the intimate legal relationship between informants and other forms of surveillance. The law privileges informant use, forcing the government to justify its use of wiretaps if informants are available--note that the post refers to snitching as a "normal investigative technique." Moreover, the law permits the government to circumvent the courts entirely and avoid asking for permission to record conversations if it can find an informant who will agree to the surveillance. The usual explanation for this hierarchy is that electronic surveillance is one of the most intrusive forms of investigation and therefore should be a means of last resort. Wiretapping is of course supremely invasive, but this fact obscures the fact that informant use can be similarly intrusive, i.e. when the government threatens friends and colleagues with criminal charges to get them to report on and record people they know. For those who are interested, Chapter Two of the book discusses informant law in detail.

The insider-trading story also hints at important differences between white collar and street/drug crime investigative tactics involving snitching. The culture of informant use is very different in these two realms: white collar informants tend to be (although not always) well controlled, represented by counsel, and provide information about past crimes, whereas drug informants tend to be poorly controlled, unrepresented, and permitted to engage in new criminal activity in order to generate evidence. At the same time, the two arenas share important features. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Seven:
White collar informing shares important characteristics with its street counterpart. Both confer a vast amount of discretionary, unreviewable authority on law enforcement. Both exacerbate power inequalities among potential offenders, as well as between vulnerable offenders and the government. In both arenas, the decision to permit cooperation means that the government is tolerating and forgiving crime, and sometimes even creating an atmosphere in which crime may flourish. And both deprive courts, and thus the public, of significant amounts of power over and information about the operations of the executive.
As informant use becomes increasingly prevalent in white collar investigations, we should expect to see more of the problems of unreliability and continued criminality that have become familiar in the street crime arena. See previous post: Committing Crime While Working for the Government.