Securities Fraud: How the Government Proves Knowledge and Intent

Securities fraud cases can seem complicated, but basically the government needs to prove two main things: that the defendant knew their actions were wrong, and that they intended to defraud investors. Let’s break it down into simpler terms.

What exactly is securities fraud? Basically it means cheating investors by using deception, half-truths, or outright lies related to buying or selling stocks, bonds, or other investments. Some common examples include:

  • Insider trading – using non-public info to get an unfair advantage
  • Accounting fraud – cooking the books to make a company look more profitable
  • Pump-and-dump schemes – artificially inflating a stock’s price to sell your own shares at a profit

So how does the government go about proving the defendant actually knew they were doing something wrong or illegal? Well, they can’t just assume the person knew – they need actual evidence. Here’s how they often try to demonstrate knowledge:

Emails & Documents Showing Awareness

If the defendant sent emails or memos showing they knew their actions were questionable, that helps prove knowledge. Like if a CEO emailed “let’s keep this off the books” or “don’t tell the auditors about this.” Pretty clear they knew it was sketchy![1]

Lies & Concealment

If someone actively lied to cover their tracks, it suggests awareness of guilt. Like if they told investors “we’re profitable” when they knew the books were cooked. Or if they used secret offshore bank accounts to hide money. That kind of deception points to knowledge.[2]

Violations of Company Policy

If the defendant broke their own company’s rules and policies, that indicates they likely knew their actions were wrong. Particularly if they actively hid violations from compliance staff and auditors.[3]

Sophistication & Experience

The government also considers the defendant’s level of financial sophistication. The more knowledgeable and experienced they are with investments and regulations, the more likely they grasped what they were doing violated laws. For example, a hedge fund manager with an MBA can’t claim ignorance as easily as a small retail investor might.[4]

Okay, so what about intent? How does the government prove the defendant actually meant to mislead or harm investors rather than just making an honest mistake?

Motive & Incentives

If the defendant stood to gain financially or otherwise from the fraud, it suggests intent. Like if they owned a lot of stock in the company and inflated earnings to pump up the stock price before selling their own shares. Having a clear personal incentive makes it harder to claim good intentions.[5]

Repeated & Elaborate Schemes

Sophisticated frauds carried out methodically over long periods suggest calculated intent to deceive. If it was a one-time slip up or accounting error – eh, maybe. But complex schemes executed repeatedly over years? That implies an intentional plan.

Encouraging Others & Obstruction

If the defendant directed or encouraged others to lie, shred documents, delete emails etc., it implies they intended to cover up misconduct, not just make mistakes. Especially if they obstructed investigations later on.[6]

So in summary – the government needs communication and behavior clearly demonstrating awareness plus evidence of motives and intentional orchestration. They combine these clues to argue the defendant knew their actions crossed lines and meant to mislead investors all along.

Now the defense will respond with counterarguments of course! They may claim the defendant had pure motives, simply made errors, or misunderstood complex rules. Or they may argue the defendant lacked proper training and oversight. It comes down to which side convinces the jury in the end!

I know this stuff can seem awfully complicated to us non-lawyer types. But hopefully breaking it down in simple terms makes the basics easier to grasp! Let me know if you have any other investing or securities-related questions – I’m always happy to chat more!