(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON Federal prosecutors unveiled criminal charges Thursday against SAC Capital, the famed hedge fund, citing "institutional practices" that encouraged a culture of using inside information to gain illegal profits.

The government charged SAC Capital with wire fraud and four counts of securities fraud. The indictment cites activity that spanned more than a decade from roughly 1999 to 2010, saying employees at the hedge fund engaged in a "pattern" of collecting non-public information about dozens of publicly traded companies.

"Unlawful conduct by individual employees and an institutional indifference to that unlawful conduct resulted in insider trading that was substantial, pervasive and on a scale without known precedent in the hedge fund industry," said the indictment.

The 41-page document paints a picture of a hedge fund where a constant pressure to gain an edge in trading led to the widespread use of inside information, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal profits.

"SAC became over time a veritable magnet for market cheaters," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York at a press conference Thursday.

The charges did not target the firm's founder, Steven Cohen, although they do mark a new nadir for the billionaire's career.

With a number of employees already convicted or charged with insider-trading, investors have been pulling out their money from the fund en masse. It's likely that a large share of the money leftover now is Cohen's own.

Bharara said the indictment does not seek to freeze any of SAC's assets.

A spokesman for SAC Capital did not respond immediately to a request for comment Thursday morning.

Prosecutors say traders and analysts were hired in part for their network of contacts at public companies. For instance, one prospective employee who specialized in the industrial sector was described in a November 2008 email as "the guy who knows the quarters cold, has a share house in the Hamptons with the CFO of [a Fortune 100 industrial sector company], tight with management."

Time and again, the indictment alleges, the company failed to check whether the information being used was obtained legally.

Prosecutors say the firm was warned that a prospective employee, who was at another hedge fund, had been working in what was known informally as the "insider trading group." According to the indictment, the candidate was hired anyway over the objections of SAC's legal department.

Cohen, the firm's founder, is not named in the indictment but references to him are made throughout the pages of charges and evidence, always as the "SAC Owner" who is constantly pressing his employees for tips and a "better edge" on trades.

In a wide-ranging series of insider-trading investigations that has ensnared several other firms and dozens of people, SAC is the most ambitious target yet. The hedge fund and its billionaire founder are symbols of the greatest possible success that can be attained on Wall Street.

SAC, based in Stamford, Conn., at its peak managed $15 billion in assets. It charged its clients more than the industry standard and performed especially well when markets were down.

Cohen, whose initials form the name of his company, is known for running a cutthroat office. He is also known for his lavish spending habits. Earlier this year, he paid $155 million for the Picasso painting "Le Reve," the most ever paid by a U.S. collector. That same month, he paid $60 million for an oceanfront property in East Hampton, N.Y.

Some legal experts said the government went after the hedge fund since it's failed so far to amass enough evidence to indict Cohen himself.

"I view it largely as a face-saving measure," said Martin Sklar, an attorney at Kleinberg, Kaplan, Wolff & Cohen who works primarily with hedge fund clients. "I suppose if successful it'll generate revenue but no one will go to jail as a result."

Federal prosecutors have already targeted at least eight traders and analysts at SAC Capital for insider trading, apart from the charges filed this week.

Bharara announced Thursday that a portfolio manager, Richard Lee, pled guilty on Tuesday to insider trading charges. Lee, according to the indictment against him, received non-public information about Yahoo's earnings and then executed trades based on the data.

A research analyst, Jon Horvath, pleaded guilty in federal court in September 2012 to conspiracy and securities and securities fraud for insider trading related to tech companies Dell and NVIDIA.

Horvath admitted that he passed on inside information about the firms to his manager Michael Steinberg, who prosecutors say executed trades based on the tips. In March, a grand jury indicted Steinberg for insider-trading.

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Cohen of failing to supervise two of the SAC portfolio managers accused of insider trading. But the agency did not charge him with fraud or insider trading.

In that civil case, the SEC is seeking to demonstrate that Cohen received suspicious information that should have tipped him off to wrongdoing at his firm.

Cohen and his wife Alexandra are major political donors, contributing more than $272,000 to federal candidates and political committees since 2009, according to campaign finance records.

During the 2012 campaign, Cohen hosted a fundraiser at his Greenwich, Conn., home for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to a report in the Connecticut Post, and he and wife each gave $30,800 to the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.


Washington Post staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.