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December 6, 2012 8:03 pm
In was on Friday November 4 last year that Eric Ben-Artzi, a vice-president in market risk management at Deutsche Bank, finally decided to file a whistleblower complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
He had spent the previous months growing increasingly concerned that, on his analysis, the bank had failed to report billions of dollars in losses during the financial crisis.
The following Monday, Mr Ben-Artzi was called to the bank’s human resources department, where his boss appeared via video conference. Mr Ben-Artzi was told he was being laid off because his role had been relocated to Berlin.
According to an anti-retaliation complaint that he filed against the bank earlier this year, he was told that his commitment to the bank was not in doubt. It was simply that there was no longer a job for him.
Deutsche Bank, which is contesting the complaint, declines to comment on Mr Ben-Artzi’s employment. It says the allegations made by him, and two others, have been the subject of “a careful and thorough investigation”, and are “wholly unfounded”.
It also says its investigation revealed that the allegations “stem from people without personal knowledge of, or responsibility for, key facts and information”. Deutsche said it would “continue to co-operate fully with the SEC’s investigation of this matter”.
Mr Ben-Artzi has brought his legal action under the Sarbanes Oxley law, which was passed after the scandals at Enron and WorldCom to provide anti-retaliation protection for employees bringing allegations to light.
The circumstances that put Mr Ben-Artzi at odds with Deutsche relate to his questioning of how the bank accounted for a portion of a $130bn notional portfolio of complex instruments called ‘leveraged super senior’ securities.
Mr Ben-Artzi believed the bank wasn’t properly accounting for the “gap option” with these securities: the chance that the counterparty’s collateral would be wiped out and the investors would walk away.
A native of Israel with a PhD in mathematics from New York University, Mr Ben-Artzi had joined Deutsche Bank’s risk group in June 2010 from Goldman Sachs where he was a quantitative analyst. After weathering the financial crisis at Goldman’s, he was looking forward to working on longer-term projects, including stress tests for complex derivatives.
It was in this role that Mr Ben-Artzi found himself asking his colleagues to explain how they accounted for the gap option – but he found that no one addressed his concerns satisfactorily.
By early 2011, Mr Ben-Artzi alleges that, after speaking with a colleague, he learnt that the bank had valued the leveraged super senior transaction in the same way as a regular super senior security – without accounting for the gap option. “It was the final straw,” Mr Ben-Artzi says.
By treating the leveraged securities like the regular securities, Mr Ben-Artzi alleges that the bank’s books hid $4.8bn in losses during 2008 and $2.9bn in 2009. A person close to Deutsche Bank says the bank hedged its exposure by betting that the S&P 500 stock index would drop.
During a trip to Jerusalem to visit his family, Mr Ben-Artzi says he sat with his wife and parents and discussed his dilemma: reporting what he believed was a potential fraud that could put his job at risk.
By early March 2011, he had decided to report his suspicions. He contacted the SEC through its tips and complaints hotline, and reported his concerns internally. Within days, he met compliance officials and the bank’s external lawyer.
Towards the end of June, he went on paternity leave. At that time, the bank began reorganising his department and he started seeking out new positions within the bank.
Mr Ben-Artzi then contacted Jordan Thomas, a former SEC enforcement attorney now running a whistleblower practice at Labaton Sucharow, a New York firm. Mr Thomas put him in touch with the Government Accountability Project, a Washington not-for-profit organisation that helps whistleblowers.
Mr Ben-Artzi returned to work in October and filed his official whistleblower complaint the next month.
In May of this year, GAP lodged the anti-retaliation complaint with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Mr Mr Ben-Artzi says the department is investigating the matter.
The DoL couldn’t be reached for comment.
“I know I did the right thing,” Mr Ben-Artzi says.
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