Rajat Gupta, front, leaves court in February. Prosecutors accused Gupta,… (Justin Lane, EPA )
NEW YORK — The federal government took down the biggest Wall Streeter yet in its battle against insider trading: Rajat Gupta, a former director of Goldman Sachs who once headed powerful consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Gupta's conviction on securities fraud and conspiracy charges in federal court in Manhattan on Friday may embolden government efforts to weed out white-collar corruption using wiretaps, tools traditionally used against mobsters and gangsters.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Michael Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who represents clients facing white-collar investigations. "This is just the latest example of the feds being one step ahead."
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have scored 62 convictions in the 68 insider-trading cases since 2009, following a sweeping FBI investigation into illicit information trafficking called Perfect Hedge. The FBI has even enlisted actor Michael Douglas, who played the fictional crooked financier Gordon Gekko in the 1980s movie "Wall Street," to star in a commercial aimed at deterring insider trader.
The onslaught has rocked financial centers of power in Manhattan in recent years. U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara has called trading on nonpublic inside information "rampant" on Wall Street.
"Having fallen from respected insider to convicted inside trader, Mr. Gupta has now exchanged the lofty boardroom for the prospect of a lowly jail cell," Bharara said.
His conviction is likely to resonate beyond just hedge funds, given his prominence in the corporate world, said Jonathan New, a former federal prosector now in private practice in New York.
"The deterrent effect is going to be felt in the boardroom," New said. "It's going to be felt inside publicly traded companies."
Gupta, 63, faces a maximum of 65 years in prison for three counts of securities fraud and a fourth of conspiracy. His was the highest-profile conviction since that of fallen hedge fund titan Raj Rajaratnam, to whom Gupta was accused of feeding secret information.
Prosecutors accused Gupta, who also served on the board of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, of passing along secret company information to Rajaratnam, who headed a vast insider-trading network supporting his hedge fund, Galleon Group.
Gupta's defense team had portrayed the government's case as speculative, based on circumstantial evidence that didn't prove he tipped off the well-connected Rajaratnam.
But two jurors in the case Wednesday told reporters the government's circumstantial evidence — drawing also on phone, meeting and other records — was overwhelming.
In one case, Gupta called Rajaratnam shortly after learning of Warren Buffett's $5-billion lifeline to Goldman Sachs at the height of the financial crisis.
"It was too coincidental," said juror Ronnie Sesso, a 53-year-old youth advocate at New York City's Administration for Children's Services.
She and another juror, Rick Lepkowski, a 51-year-old nonprofit executive, said they had difficulty in discerning Gupta's motive.
Tipsters in insider-trading cases often directly benefit from illicit profits, but no such payment was alleged. Instead, prosecutors pointed to Gupta's friendship with Rajaratnam and to their financial ventures that were mutually beneficial.
Sesso and Lepkowski, the only two jurors to speak to reporters after the verdict, said they were sympathetic to Gupta.
"Here was a man who came to this country and was an example of the American dream," living a "storybook life," with a supporting family, Lepkowski said.
"We wanted him to walk," added Sesso.
In the end, it seemed like Rajaratnam manipulated Gupta into breaking the law, they said.
"He was a little snake in the grass," Sesso said of Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years in prison at his own trial last year.
Gupta chose not to testify at his own trial, which featured testimony by former Goldman Sachs colleague Lloyd Blankfein, the bank's chairman and chief executive.
Gupta faces sentencing Oct. 18. His lead defense attorney, Gary Naftalis, said his client maintains his innocence and may appeal. Rajaratnam has appealed his conviction.
"This is only Round 1 of this matter," Naftalis said.