By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Suzanne Barlyn
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The top U.S. securities regulator on Wednesday charged billionaire investor Leon Cooperman with insider trading, making him the highest-profile target in years in Washington's ongoing crackdown on illegal trading at hedge funds.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Cooperman's trades earned roughly $4 million when his fund Omega Advisors invested in Atlas Pipeline Partners six years ago, before it sold a gas processing facility. Cooperman was a big shareholder in the company and used his position to obtain confidential information about the sale that other investors did not know about, the agency said in its civil case.
Cooperman, 73, denied any wrongdoing. "We have done nothing improper and categorically deny the Commission's allegations," he said in a five-page letter sent to investors, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
He later told investors, in a 10-minute conference call, that he refused to settle with the government in order to protect his legacy. Cooperman, who grew up as the son of a plumber in the Bronx, has been trading for about five decades.
The charges are likely to put more pressure on Cooperman, one of the hedge fund industry's best-known stock pickers, and his $5.4 billion fund where assets have been halved in the last two years. A number of investors, including Deutsche Bank, have dropped Omega recently, according to documents seen by Reuters.
The billionaire first informed investors in March that he might face charges, after he received a notice from the government.
On Wednesday he also cautioned that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey, which has been investigating the matter, has not completed its probe but is not pursuing charges at the moment.
In its case, the SEC said "Omega Advisors allegedly accumulated APL securities despite explicitly agreeing not to use the material nonpublic information for trading purposes." APL was bought by a unit of Targa Resources Corp <TRGP.N> in early 2015.
Cooperman said he invested in the company for years, first in 2007 and selling out last year, long after the alleged insider trading occurred in July 2010. The government said Cooperman had trimmed his bet in APL in the first half of 2010 and called it a "shitty business" on July 7, 2010. Later that day, however, after a telephone call with an APL executive, Cooperman began buying more shares, the government said.
"By doing so, he allegedly undermined the public confidence in the securities markets and took advantage of other investors who did not have this information," Andrew Ceresney, the SEC's director of enforcement, said in a statement.
The SEC said an APL executive believed Cooperman was trying to fabricate a coverup in case Cooperman and the executives were questioned about the matter. Cooperman denied this on his call with clients.
The SEC also said Cooperman violated federal securities laws more than 40 times by failing to report the stocks he owned in a timely manner.
Cooperman is the government's most prominent target since it began cracking down on insider trading among hedge fund managers about seven years ago, when it arrested billionaire Raj Rajaratnam. The Galleon Group founder is now serving an 11-year prison sentence.
Three years ago, Steven A. Cohen's SAC Capital Advisors pleaded guilty to insider trading but Cohen was personally never charged.
"The Cooperman story of insider trading is a familiar one," said Tamar Frankel, an expert in securities law and a professor at Boston University School of Law. "There is temptation to use such information and gain more money. The threat of punishment does not loom very large."
Cooperman, who worked his way to the Ivy League's Columbia Business School from the Bronx, has ranked among America's most highly respected investors for decades. He founded Omega in 1991 after spending years at Goldman Sachs. As a prominent hedge fund manager, he has often appeared on television talking about his stock picks and at industry conferences where attendees paid thousands to dollars to hear his advice.
Some of his biggest winners included bets on publisher Gannett Co Inc <GCI.N> and Brazilian healthcare provider Qualicorp SA <QUAL3.SA> .
While Omega lost 35.2 percent in 2008 during the financial crisis, the fund came rocketing back with a 52.6 percent gain in 2009.
Cooperman said on Wednesday's call that he likes what he owns at present and that he will continue to manage money for his clients. "There is no need for forced selling," he said, adding that his portfolios are all making money this year.
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan, Lawrence Delevingne and Michael Erman in New York)