Feds charge Delco pastor, Ukrainian hackers in $100M insider trading scheme

17.08.2015, 16:55
Federal authorities say Vitaly Korchevsky is a crooked money manager who worked for years with Ukrainian hackers to pull off an audacious $100 million insider trading scheme.

Federal authorities say Vitaly Korchevsky is a crooked money manager who worked for years with Ukrainian hackers to pull off an audacious $100 million insider trading scheme.

His wife describes him as a humble pastor who routinely travels the world on behalf of one of the largest Slavic Baptist churches in the Philadelphia suburbs.

But regardless of whether Korchevsky is just one or both of those things, he stands accused in what prosecutors are calling an "unprecedented hacking and trading scheme" that demonstrates a new threat posed by sophisticated cyber criminals.

Justice Department officials unveiled a sprawling securities fraud case Tuesday against Korchevsky, 50, of Glen Mills, and eight others, alleging they made millions on Wall Street by hacking some of the business world's largest newswire services and stealing corporate news releases before they were made public.

With early access to earnings reports and other financial news, the group allegedly traded on that information, exploiting a gap lasting in some cases only minutes before the news it contained was widely released.

"This is the story of a traditional securities fraud scheme with a twist - one that employed a contemporary approach to a conventional crime," said Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office.

Of those charged in separate indictments filed in New York City and Newark, N.J., two - Ivan Turchynov, 27, and Oleksandr Ieremenko, 24 - were described as computer hackers from Ukraine.

Korchevsky was one of six stock traders charged with others hailing from New York and Georgia. With his codefendants, he stands accused of making $30 million in profits from their scheme.

But a parallel civil suit filed Tuesday by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleged a much broader operation - putting the group's illegal proceeds at more than $100 million and naming 21 more defendants, including companies in Russia, France, Malta, and Cyprus.

Korchevsky, a U.S. citizen who leads the Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church in Brookhaven, Delaware County, declined to comment Thursday as he left an initial hearing in federal court in Philadelphia. He had not yet hired an attorney.

His background, as outlined in court filings and other public records, suggests an incongruous mix of Christianity and criminality.

According to his professional biography, Korchevsky became a born-again evangelical in 1981, eight years before he moved to the United States from the Soviet Union. He earned an MBA from Regent University, the private Christian college in Virginia founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, and has served as the chairman of the Association of Slavic Baptist Churches USA since 2000.

He delivered financial planning advice for families in Russian in a series of YouTube videos.

Korchevsky's bona fides in the financial world are equally strong. His LinkedIn profile lists stints as a senior vice president at Investment Counselors of Maryland and as a Morgan Stanley mutual fund manager. He has earned the title of chartered financial analyst, a gold-standard designation that requires years of study and exam.

But according to government lawyers, Korchevsky founded his own hedge fund in 2011, and used it to personally net $17 million working with the hackers between 2010 and May of this year.

During that period, they allegedly gained early access to more than 150,000 news releases by breaking into the computers of Toronto-based Marketwired, PR Newswire in New York, and Business Wire of San Francisco - companies that put out releases for major corporations, including Caterpillar Inc. and Panera Bread Co.

According to the indictments, the traders sent the hackers "shopping lists" for businesses whose information they deemed most valuable. In exchange, the hackers were paid a cut of the profits.

The conspirators typically used their inside information to buy stock options - a bet on the direction a stock will move, prosecutors said. Sometimes they had only minutes to put the information to use before it became public.

For instance, in 2011 the hackers provided Korchevsky with a news release announcing positive earnings news from Seattle-based biotech firm Dendreon.

In the 27 minutes before the news went public, he bought 1,100 options he would later sell for a $2.3 million profit, according to court filings.

The insider trading strategy proved so successful that Korchevsky and his codefendants allegedly began recruiting other hackers online for a separate scheme that involved placing orders to buy or sell large quantities of securities in hope of moving the market, then quickly canceling their orders before they went through to profit on the change in stock prices.

Those machinations show that the days when Internet financial crimes consisted of little more than fishing expeditions for credit card and Social Security numbers are over, SEC Chief Mary Jo White said in a statement.

"Today's international case is unprecedented in terms of the scope of the hacking at issue, the number of traders involved, the number of securities unlawfully traded, and the amount of profits generated," she said.

And the companies allegedly targeted by the hackers have taken note. Business Wire said Tuesday it had hired a cybersecurity firm to test its systems.

PR Newswire said it was cooperating with the ongoing investigation.

"We take security very seriously, and are dedicated to protecting our information and systems," the company said in statement.

What the case might mean for Korchevsky's immediate future remains less clear.

In Tuesday's federal court hearing in Philadelphia, prosecutors described him as a flight risk and sought to have him held in custody until trial.

He is believed to have $5 million in liquid assets at his disposal and has made at least 42 trips abroad since 2010, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ignall said.

Justice Department officials allege he funneled the millions he made off illegal stock trades into buying residential real estate in Glen Mills, Media, Upper Chichester, and West Chester as well as a Malvern strip mall.

"He has the ability to flee," Ignall said. "He also has significant incentive to flee."

For his own part, Korchevsky, dressed in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, told U.S. District Judge Linda K. Caracappa that "99 percent" of his travel was tied to the church. At one point, his wife, sitting in the courtroom's back row, interrupted the proceedings to vouch for her husband.

"My husband is the pastor of a big church here, and I'm 100 percent sure he would never flee," she said.

Caracappa ultimately released Korchevsky on a $100,000 recognizance bond. He is due back in court Friday for one last court hearing before his prosecution moves to New York.

Jeremy Roebuck and Erin Arvedlund

11 August 2015 Philly