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SAN FRANCISCO — A few years ago, Bay Area federal prosecutors took up a white-collar case that wasn’t particularly sexy, indicting a handful of employees of an executive recruiting firm who had tapped an internal database to get information to start a competing business. The U.S. attorney’s office quickly cut deals with two of the lower-level employees before indicting its main target, David Nosal, an executive at Korn/Ferry International, charging him and a woman named Becky Christian with a slew of crimes, including trade secret theft.

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