NEW YORK (Reuters) - A jury is being asked to decide whether money market pioneer Bruce Bent and his son played by the rules when their fund became a victim of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
Opening a civil fraud trial in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday, a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer said the Bents lied to investors and trustees in attempts to stop a run on their Reserve Fund on September 15 and 16, 2008.
Hours after Lehman went bankrupt on September 15 and markets worldwide were in turmoil, “wasn’t this a moment that cried out for honest answers?” SEC lawyer Nancy Brown asked the jury. She said the Bents told investors what they wanted to hear - that the Bents intended to use their own money to keep investments safe.
“The evidence shows, it was a lie, plain and simple,” Brown said.
Reserve held $785 million in Lehman debt, or 1.2 percent of the $62 billion it then had invested. The day after Lehman filed the biggest bankruptcy in history, the fund’s net asset value “broke the buck” or fell below $1 a share.
The Bents’ lawyer, in his opening argument, offered a different story, however. Reserve did not have enough money to cover a rush of redemptions, and the Bents told the board of trustees and the SEC itself that was the case, he said.
“They were people trying their best under absolutely unprecedented circumstances,” the lawyer, John Dellaportas, told the nine-member jury. He said the law demands that money managers take reasonable care and “they said what they intended to do at the time and they meant it.”
The market regulator sued Bruce Bent, his son Bruce Bent II and the Reserve Management company in 2009 for breaking securities laws. It seeks unspecified gains the Bents might have made and a fine in the trial, before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe.
Reserve was the first money-market fund in the United States when it started in 1970 by Bruce Bent. Its collapse was a driver of the credit market seizure following Lehman’s bankruptcy. New regulations have since reduced the credit and maturity risks that money funds may take.
By January 2010, Reserve said it had distributed nearly all of the $50.5 billion left in its Reserve Primary fund after Lehman’s bankruptcy. Investors recovered about 99 cents on the dollar.
The Bents’ lawyer told the jury that there was no fraud or cover-up by father and son as the SEC lawsuit maintained, during a 12-hour period over two days in mid-September 2008.
“We say the world changed between Monday and Tuesday and we have a lot to support that,” Dellaportas, said. He said his clients would take the witness stand “to look you in the eye and tell you what happened.”
The Bents could testify as soon as Wednesday in a trial that is expected to last three weeks.
The case is SEC v. Reserve Management Co et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 09-04346
Editing by Steve Orlofsky