Last week, the Justice Department closed a particularly significant case that has rippled through the business and finance world: the conviction of Mathew Martoma in the most lucrative insider trading scheme in U.S. history. The case is significant for the amount of money inappropriately gained — $300 million — but the story behind the case is captivating the financial community. The scale of greed, impropriety and deceit Martoma exhibited has even shocked Wall Street.
The story begins in 1999 at Harvard Law School, where Ajai Mathew Mariamdani Thomas is applying for prestigious clerkships. His transcript didn’t particularly stand out, even with Harvard’s name on it. So Thomas decided to make a few cosmetic alterations — namely, changing several Bs to As. And it worked. Thomas received multiple interviews with prestigious judges. However, a clerk for one of the judges grew suspicious of Thomas and called Harvard Law, asking if Thomas’s transcript was correct. Harvard discovered the inconsistency, and Thomas was called in for judicial hearings. If convicted he would face expulsion. Thomas claimed these changes were “a joke” intended to be used “only for his parents” and had “by mistake” been sent as part of his clerkship applications. His story changed back and forth; at first he claimed he didn’t know about the forgery. Then he did, but wasn’t serious about clerkships, so he intentionally performed poorly in interviews to sabotage his own success. Judges quickly testified against this idea. Even as co-founder of the Harvard Society of Law and Ethics club, Thomas was convicted by the Harvard review board and expelled from law school.
But Thomas didn’t stop there. He then secretly formed a computer forensics company, which he used to try to trick Harvard Law into letting him back in. He appealed his case to the Harvard review board, where he argued that the “mix-up” in transcript changes could be proven to be a sincere mistake, verifiable by backdating emails he sent. Thomas’s computer forensics company submitted a report on Thomas’s behalf. Harvard somehow found out about Thomas’s connection to the computer forensics company and decided, all things considered, not to let him back in.
Thomas then changed his name to Mathew Martoma. He also convinced his brothers to change their last names to Martoma as well, thus leaving Mathew Thomas behind permanently. Martoma applied to Stanford’s MBA program. It is still unclear if Stanford knew who Mathew Martoma was, though obviously Martoma would have had to lie about his history of judicial action at any other institution. He was accepted and graduated without incident.
After bouncing around in the hedge fund world for a while, he landed a job at one of the largest, most successful, most publicly prominent hedge funds in the world, SAC Capital.
While at SAC Capital, Martoma arranged consulting agreements with researchers working on an experimental Alzheimer’s drug. Martoma paid $70,000 to Sidney Gilman, a leading project researcher, for privileged information regarding the effectiveness of the drug before it was announced. SAC Capital traded on that information in a move that made the company just under $300 million and won Martoma a personal $9 million year-end bonus. The FBI discovered the connection, which Martoma tried to obfuscate. Lies continued throughout the case; the FBI’s lead witness in the Martoma case, Sidney Gilman, tried to lie his way through the FBI’s investigation. Eventually he turned against Martoma and Martoma’s defense collapsed.
Interestingly enough, Martoma isn’t the big fish in the eyes of the Justice Department. The Justice Department has been trying to nail SAC Capital’s founder, Steven Cohen, for years now. Martoma was presumably offered a good deal to roll over on Cohen, raising questions as to why Martoma wouldn’t take that deal. While he could be trying to stay in Cohen’s good graces, perhaps for employment after jail, people have been quick to speculate that Cohen holds a significant amount of dirt on Martoma to keep him quiet. Could Martoma’s scandal go deeper? Even though Martoma isn’t the justice department’s big fish, his story has shocked the world because of the scale of its deception. He lied his way through law school, business school and the hedge fund, world only to go on to lead the largest case of insider trading in U.S. history.
Where there is opportunity, greed, corruption and deceit follow. Look at any highly competitive and lucrative industry around the world. There is very little room for error and unimaginable wealth to those who get to the top by any means necessary. There is no way to stop the liars and cheaters from entering the crowd, so we should be cautious when vilifying an industry. Instead, we should advocate resources for the Justice Department and changes to incentive structures.
This story has a happy ending, as Martoma was sentenced to 20 years in prison last week.