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Ex-UBS official and friend get 3 years in insider-trading case
[LONDON] A former UBS Group AG compliance officer and her friend were sentenced to three years for insider trading after a London trial that featured accounts of champagne-fuelled parties, burner phones and evidence stashed in a Chanel handbag.
Ex-UBS employee Fabiana Abdel-Malek, 36, and day trader Walid Choucair, 40, were sentenced Thursday in London, with a judge saying that they will serve half the term in prison.
After tearfully hugging her family, Abdel-Malek was taken into custody by guards. Choucair, wearing a tracksuit and looking distraught, followed her.
The ruling caps an eight-week trial filled with details of lavish nights out in one of the city's most exclusive nightclubs, and a network of traders who only spoke on burner phones.
Abdel-Malek was accused by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) of passing tips from confidential UBS databases to Choucair, who would use the data within minutes.
Judge Joanna Korner called Abdel-Malek a "gamekeeper" who used bank materials to become an "accomplished poacher."
"It's clear to me that you enjoyed and made full use of entry into the rather louche lifestyle that was being led by Choucair," Justice Korner said Thursday. "There is no question that both of your actions were deliberate" and dishonest.
BREACH OF TRUST
The FCA had a lot riding on the case, its first prosecution in two and a half years.
The agency compiled a detailed timeline of the communication and movements of Abdel-Malek and Choucair, but didn't present evidence that Abdel-Malek profited from the relationship.
"You Walid Choucair did corrupt Fabiana Abdel-Malek into committing these offenses and you were the one who in the end received the money," Justice Korner said. "But you Fabiana Abdel-Malek committed a gross breach of trust which I have already said will affect the reputation of UBS."
The defence accepted most parts of the prosecution's case: that Abdel-Malek looked the deals up, that she texted him from her desk and that he traded the same stocks she was looking up.
But Abdel-Malek and Choucair fiercely disputed what they discussed as well as denying that they met at times when the prosecution alleged Abdel-Malek told him about deals.
The case was a rerun of hearings last year that resulted in a hung jury.
The relationship between the pair - with what prosecutors alleged was her access to confidential documents and his glamorous life in London - was the focal point of the trial.
In 2005, Choucair, the London-born son of a successful Lebanese construction entrepreneur, started betting on market rumours about upcoming mergers and acquisitions.
He met Abdel-Malek after his mother ordered curtains for his apartment beside the Royal Albert Hall from her mother. Years later, when they rekindled a platonic relationship, Abdel-Malek was six years into a promising career as a UBS compliance officer, but still living at home with her parents and two sisters in West London.
In spring 2013, Choucair bought Abdel-Malek a pay-as-you-go BlackBerry, identical to the model she used at work. Every few months he gave her a new Sim card. When UBS upgraded Abdel-Malek's handset, Choucair again bought her the same model.
Choucair testified that their communications were purely social, but that he was worried it would tarnish Abdel-Malek's image if UBS found out they were speaking. The prosecution said it was to hide that she was feeding him tips.
"It is the use of these phones which illustrates just how carefully planned this scheme was," Justice Korner said, adding that she believed that part was Choucair's idea.
CHAMPAGNE AT TRAMP
Every several weeks or so, Choucair spent thousands of pounds on 3-litre bottles of champagne at Tramp, a celebrity haunt in Mayfair he'd been going to since 2001. Choucair often invited Abdel-Malek, her friend and her sister to the exclusive establishment. She could only get in by invitation from a member, like Choucair.
Though Abdel-Malek said she barely drank, the prosecution said the glamorous allure of Tramp was enough of a motive for her to betray her employer's confidence. She denied that, testifying that she wouldn't risk throwing her career away for a couple of glasses of champagne.
With Abdel-Malek's help, the prosecution said, Choucair traded on large corporate merger talks, including Vodafone Group's US$10 billion bid for Kabel Deutschland AG in June 2012.
The pair were indicted over five trades, though, in the absence of the jury, the prosecution said that it suspected her of leaking information on 30 deals in that year.
The investigation started in June 2014, when an officer of the UK's National Crime Agency spotted Choucair talking with a trader named Alshair Fiyaz, at London's Four Seasons Hotel, lawyers for the FCA and Choucair said during the trial.
Choucair testified that he didn't count on Abdel-Malek for information, but relied on a loose group of traders such as Mr Fiyaz, a man wealthy enough to buy billionaire Roman Abramovich's superyacht and own a polo club in St. Tropez.
After the trial, Mr Fiyaz's lawyers dismissed Choucair's allegations, saying that their client has never been under investigation by the FCA "or any other authority".
"Mr Fiyaz vehemently denies any reported claims designed to portray him as a trader engaged in unethical practices,'' his lawyers at Lewis Silkin said in a statement. "He is a highly respected businessman and philanthropist who has worked extremely hard in order to achieve success in his professional life.''
Mr Fiyaz wasn't accused of wrongdoing, but towards the end of the trial, the FCA revealed that they had limited information that suggested that an intermediary of Mr Fiyaz may have spoken with a "source" with access to confidential information at Citigroup.
Mr Fiyaz's lawyers said that at no time has he "been questioned, charged or convicted in relation to financial misconduct of any kind in the UK or any other jurisdiction". The bank declined to comment.
Choucair also said he had a close relationship with journalists, particularly Bloomberg's former head of deals reporting, Jeff McCracken, whom he said he spoke with several times a week.
Choucair said he fed Mr McCracken tips with the hope the journalist would confirm them with legitimate sources.
If Mr McCracken broke a story and a company's share price jumped, Choucair and his trading associates could sell their investments at a profit.
Mr McCracken, who joined CNBC in 2017, wasn't accused of wrongdoing and declined to comment.