A former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) official facing federal felony charges for allegedly using confidential agency information to help him land the top compliance post at a private equity firm has pled guilty to a misdemeanor in federal court.
Michael Cohn, a former SEC securities compliance examiner, was charged in February 2019 with obstruction of justice, unauthorized computer access, and unauthorized disclosure of confidential information in connection with the SEC’s investigation into GPB Capital Holdings, a Long Island-based firm under investigation by the SEC and several other federal and state agencies.
Cohn worked in the Asset Management Unit of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, where he assisted investigations into violations of securities laws. Before he left the agency in October 2018, Cohn allegedly accessed information he was not authorized to view on SEC servers relating to an Enforcement Division investigation into GPB, according to the indictment. He then used that information to help him land the role of chief compliance officer at GPB, prosecutors alleged. GPB hired Cohn as its chief compliance officer in January 2019, a month before he was charged in federal court. Cohn no longer holds the position.
On Tuesday, Cohn pled guilty in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to one count of theft of government property, ”in relation to his accessing and retrieving non-public and confidential information about SEC investigations into GPB and using that information to get a job at GPB,” according to a court spokesman. He faces up to a year in prison at his January 2021 sentencing hearing, the spokesman said.
Through his attorney, Cohn said he “feels vindicated” by the misdemeanor plea.
“For the last year and a half, Mr. Cohn has maintained his innocence to the government’s felony charges and pressed for a timely bench trial,” Scott Resnik, partner at the New York firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, said in a statement. “By resolving this case with a misdemeanor, Mr. Cohn takes an important step toward putting this whole matter behind him and getting on with his life.”
GPB is the subject of investigations by the SEC, FBI, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), according to multiple reports. Those investigations into the firm have not led to any charges. In May, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against the firm for allegedly violating the state’s securities laws regarding $14 million in investments from 180 state residents.
In July, the Wall Street Journal published a story detailing GPB’s response to the allegations made by Massachusetts regulators, in which GPB argued it did not defraud its investors.
A spokeswoman for GPB Capital said in a statement, “Former SEC and GPB employee Michael Cohn was with GPB for less than a year, and GPB had no involvement with or knowledge of his wrongdoing. GPB terminated Cohn immediately upon learning of the situation.”
Had Cohn been found guilty on the felony charges, he faced up to 26 years in prison: a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment on the obstruction of justice count, a maximum of five years’ imprisonment on the unauthorized computer access count, and a maximum of one year in prison on the unauthorized disclosure count.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from GPB Capital.