December 21, 2016
On December 6, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Salman v. United States. Bassam Yacoub Salman was convicted in a jury trial of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, as well as several counts of actual securities fraud. The government’s theory was that Salman, whose brother-in-law Mounir Kara (along with Mounir’s older brother Maher Kara) worked for Citigroup, had coordinated with Mounir in an insider trading scheme that, over the course of just a few years, grew a $396,000 brokerage account controlled by Salman into one worth more than $2 million.
Salman moved for a new trial, arguing that there was no evidence he knew that the tipper had disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit. The district court denied the motion. Salman made a similar argument to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on appeal, urging the Court to adopt the then-recently established standard set out by the Second Circuit in United States v. Newman. Under Newman, the government must present sufficient evidence that the accused knew the “inside” information he received had been disclosed in breach of a fiduciary duty. Invoking Supreme Court precedent in Dirks v. SEC, the Ninth Circuit rejected Salman’s challenge, holding that the close familial relationship between Salman and the Karas was sufficient to sustain Salman’s convictions.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether the personal benefit to the insider that is necessary to establish insider trading under Dirks requires proof of “an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature,” as the Second Circuit held in Newman, or whether it is enough that the insider and the tippee shared a close familial relationship, as the Ninth Circuit held here.
By a vote of 8-0, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit. In an opinion delivered by Justice Alito, a unanimous Court held that the Ninth Circuit properly applied the court's decision in Dirks v. Securities and Exchange Commission to affirm Bassam Salman's conviction because, under Dirks, the jury could infer that Salman's tipper personally benefited from making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative.
To discuss the case, we have Thaya Brook Knight, who is associate director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.