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Published June 25, 2013, 01:47 PM

Lawsuit against MF Global's Corzine could be near

Federal regulators are poised to sue Jon S. Corzine over the collapse of MF Global and the brokerage firm’s misuse of customer money during its final days, a blowup that rattled Wall Street and cast a spotlight on Corzine, the former New Jersey governor who ran the firm until its bankruptcy in 2011.

By: Ben Protess , New York Times New Service

Federal regulators are poised to sue Jon S. Corzine over the collapse of MF Global and the brokerage firm’s misuse of customer money during its final days, a blowup that rattled Wall Street and cast a spotlight on Corzine, the former New Jersey governor who ran the firm until its bankruptcy in 2011.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the federal agency that regulated MF Global, plans to approve the lawsuit as soon as this week, according to law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case. In a rare move against a Wall Street executive, the agency has informed Corzine’s lawyers that it aims to file the civil case without offering him the opportunity to settle, setting up a legal battle that could drag on for years.

Without directly linking Corzine to the disappearance of more than $1 billion in customer money, the trading commission will probably blame the chief executive for failing to prevent the breach at a lower rung of the firm, the law enforcement officials said. If found liable, he could face millions of dollars in fines and possibly a ban from trading commodities, jeopardizing his future on Wall Street.

In a statement, a spokesman for Corzine denounced the trading commission for planning to file what he called an “unprecedented and meritless civil enforcement action.”

The aggressive action would stand in contrast to the government’s investigations so far into the 2008 financial crisis, many of which produced symbolic fines. In the case of Lehman Bros., which imploded at the height of the crisis, no employee has ever been charged with civil or criminal wrongdoing.

An MF Global case, expected to be filed in federal court, could become something of an experiment for federal regulators under pressure to adopt a harder line against Wall Street. It would also thrust the trading commission — the financial industry’s smallest regulator — onto a bigger stage.

A case would darken the cloud over the legacy of Corzine, 66, who as a onetime Democratic governor and senator from New Jersey and a former chief of Goldman Sachs has long been a confidant of leaders in Washington and on Wall Street.

But it would also suggest that authorities have all but removed a greater threat: criminal charges. After nearly two years of stitching together evidence, criminal investigators have concluded that porous risk controls at the firm, rather than fraud, allowed the customer money to disappear, according to the law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case.

Still, the spokesman for Corzine, Steven Goldberg, said that the trading commission’s anticipated lawsuit “is not surprising considering the political pressure to hold someone liable for the failure of MF Global,” the largest Wall Street bankruptcy since the 2008 financial crisis. Lawmakers and even some agency officials, he said, have publicly condemned the firm.

“If the CFTC brings this enforcement action, Corzine would welcome the opportunity to litigate this matter in an impartial venue, free from politically influenced prejudice and unfounded assertions, which have been frequently repeated despite the lack of a factual basis,” Goldberg says.

Pocketing customers’ money

As MF Global teetered on the brink of collapse, employees in Chicago transferred customer money to plug holes in the firm’s own accounts, causing a shortfall for clients like hedge funds and farmers whose funds vanished into banks and clearinghouses. The money might have never disappeared if the banks had not pocketed the customers’ money.

“During the difficult final week, Mr. Corzine was never informed, nor was he ever given reason to believe, that customer funds were at risk or were being used improperly,” Goldberg says. “Justice would not be served if Mr. Corzine were to be blamed for alleged mistakes that were made without his knowledge.”

Some internal emails lend support to Corzine’s defense. An email reviewed by The New York Times indicates that an employee in the firm’s Chicago office, Edith O’Brien, explicitly stated to Corzine that money was a “house wire,” meaning that it came from the firm’s own accounts, not from customers. O’Brien, who oversaw the transfer of customer money during the firm’s final week, has been a focus of the investigation since its onset.

For months, she declined to cooperate with authorities without receiving immunity from criminal prosecution. Federal authorities hesitated to grant her request, according to people close to the case, but started to reverse course this spring when they invited her to an interview.

For now, O’Brien is likely to receive immunity from criminal prosecution, but she or her direct bosses could still face a civil action from the trading commission, the officials said. O’Brien has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the FBI in Manhattan declined to comment. The trading commission also declined to comment.

MF Global filed for bankruptcy on Halloween 2011. Months later, the trading commission’s investigation escalated even as criminal scrutiny petered out. Early this year, the regulator deposed Corzine under oath.

Since the collapse of the firm, Corzine has kept a low public profile. Lately, however, he has ventured out a bit. He recently visited Central America for a humanitarian project involving children, for example. And last week, he was seen at an old haunt in Lower Manhattan, Esquires of Wall Street, an 81-year-old barbershop that Corzine has frequented since his days at Goldman.

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