By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday signed off on a $602 million insider-trading settlement between a unit of SAC Capital Advisors and U.S. securities regulators, but he said final approval rests on the outcome of another high-profile case now on appeal.
District Judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan called the settlement amount "significant and proportional to the sums allegedly at issue." However, he conditioned his approval on the impending ruling by a federal appeals court in a case involving Citigroup Inc
In that case, a judge rejected Citigroup's $285 million settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over the bank's mortgage-linked securities dealings, taking issue with the agency's longstanding policy of allowing defendants to neither admit nor deny allegations as part of a settlement.
Like the Citigroup case, the SAC settlement did not require the hedge fund run by money manager Steven A. Cohen to admit or deny the regulator's insider-trading allegations. The settlement would resolve SEC civil charges against SAC subsidiary CR Intrinsic.
Marrero wrote in a 34-page opinion that it was "incongruous" for the hedge fund to admit no wrongdoing while agreeing to such a high settlement when it would cost "a fraction of that amount," about $1 million, to litigate.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to soon issue an opinion in the Citigroup case. The appeal stems from the 2011 rejection of the bank's settlement with the SEC by Marrero's colleague, U.S. District Jed Rakoff.
Rakoff has argued that public interest is not served by settlements in which there is no admission of what happened. Others, however, say that such settlements can often be the only way to get companies to settle fraud cases.
The CR Intrinsic case relates to the conduct of former portfolio manager Mathew Martoma, who was criminally charged late last year with insider trading in two drug stocks, Elan Corp Plc
Another federal judge has already approved a $14 million settlement between the SEC and another SAC Capital unit, Sigma Capital Management.
Marrero wrote that his approval of the CR Intrinsic pact would be final if the appeals court determines that district courts lack the authority to reject such settlements on the basis of reservations about admit nor deny provisions.
But he made it clear he would have serious reservations if the appeals court left him room to do so.
"Instances can and do arise in which courts should properly raise the level of scrutiny they accord to particular settlement agreements in particular situations," he wrote.
Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for SAC Capital, declined to comment on Tuesday.
The hedge fund, based in Stamford, Connecticut, previously has called the agreements "a substantial step" toward resolving all outstanding regulatory matters.
The case are SEC v. CR Intrinsic Investors LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-08466
(Reporting By Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Martha Graybow and Kenneth Barry)