Goldman case shows SEC is back

WASHINGTON — The Securities and Exchange Commission's civil fraud suit against Goldman Sachs that shook Wall Street stands in sharp contrast to the agency's many blunders in failing to stop the $50 billion Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff.

The complaint filed against Goldman on Friday contained a meticulous narrative of a highly complex deal, but also included the crowing e-mails of a young Goldman executive who allegedly allowed a hedge fund client to stack the package with risky home mortgages. The hedge fund, Paulson & Co., secretly reaped a $1 billion profit by betting against the deal at the expense of other investors, the suit said.

Even the agency's news release announcing the Goldman suit was infused with "a condemnatory tone that we have not seen coming out of the SEC for almost a decade," since the end of the Clinton administration, said James Cox, a Duke University law professor who specializes in securities.

"The release is very judgmental about the conduct, almost scolding... and those releases get done at the highest level," he said.

The message: The SEC is back on the job.

By way of comparison, in the case of Madoff's Ponzi scheme, the SEC failed to act on repeated tips that Madoff was cheating his investors.

The SEC brought its case against Goldman, Wall Street's biggest player, just three months after its enforcement director, Robert Khuzami, appointed heads of five new investigative units. One of the units focuses on "structured products," such as those in the Goldman deal and hundreds of others engineered by Wall Street from 2001-2007.

The unit's chief, veteran agency attorney Kenneth Lench, has been hiring non-lawyer financial experts.

The sagging economy has put the agency in a position to recruit the kind of talent that it will need to disentangle complex deals and hold the financial industry accountable for ruining the global economy, said Elizabeth Nowicki, a former lawyer in the SEC's general counsel's office who is a visiting law professor at Boston University.

Because of the decline in initial public offerings on Wall Street, some SEC divisions are underworked and available to help, she said. Meantime, "really competent qualified corporate lawyers have been laid off from the Wall Street firms, and the government has money to pay these lawyers."

Cox said the case against Goldman shows that the agency "is capable of putting together a very strong team of investigators and enforcement personnel to put together these facts and unravel them."

The agency also could be aided in the Goldman case by an appeals court ruling two years ago that that lays responsibility on companies to avoid communicating "half truths" that might mislead investors, he said.