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Richard Owens isn’t the kind of prosecutor to browbeat witnesses and intimidate defense lawyers. But the chief of the securities and commodities fraud unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York gets the job done just the same. “He’s got that down-home, ‘aw shucks’ approach — because he’s from North Carolina,” says Robert Khuzami, who supervised Owens in the office from 1999 to 2001, “but meanwhile he’s picking your pocket if you’re a defense attorney.” Owens traces part of his career path to a computer glitch while at Harvard Law School. He had applied for summer associate slots at firms only in Boston and Charlotte, N.C., but he somehow landed an interview with New York’s Shereff, Friedman, Hoffman & Goodman (now Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman). He was about to throw out the letter when his roommate, a New York native, told him that the firm was “a cool, funky litigation boutique.” Owens spent a summer at the firm, and then spent his first four years of practice there, representing white-collar criminal defendants such as former employees of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. He often worked with ex-AUSAs, and his move to the Southern District in 1994 seemed a logical progression. It was a fortuitous time for a go-getter to be in this office. Mary Jo White, then U.S. Attorney, was reinvigorating the securities unit with young attorneys. That allowed Owens to snag one of the coveted spots — normally reserved for third- or fourth-years — after less than two years in the office. Reid Figel, chief of the securities unit at the time, put Owens on the Daiwa Bank Ltd. case, which involved employees of the Japanese bank hiding $1.1 billion in losses from unauthorized securities trading. In 1996 the government secured a then-record $340 million fine in the case, and Owens and the three other Daiwa prosecutors received the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service. In 1997 Owens led prosecution of a $95 million securities scam involving PCO Inc. (a company known as Personal Choice Opportunities), that was cashing out nonexistent life insurance policies, pooling them into securities, and selling them, illegally, to investors. Just four weeks after getting a tip, Owens had investigated and ensured the first wave of arrests. “He’s got great traction,” says George Canellos, a former prosecutor, who is now a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. “Especially in these white-collar cases, you need to be quick and get momentum; otherwise, you’d get bogged down and follow the wrong leads.” That facility paid off as Owens became involved in some of the most complex securities cases in history. He was senior member of the team that brought Patrick Bennett of The Bennett Funding Group Inc. to trial in 1998 for running a $750 million Ponzi scheme, the largest in history at the time. Owens received another AG’s award for that. Shortly thereafter, Owens helped investigate and file charges against Martin Armstrong, who has not yet gone to trial but is accused of defrauding more than 60 Japanese corporate investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars through accounts held at Republic New York Securities Corp. According to Khuzami, Owens managed this matter with alacrity, securing an arrest warrant on Armstrong within two to three weeks, a definite challenge given the Byzantine nature of such transactions. Republic subsequently pleaded guilty and paid more than $600 million to the Japanese victims — the largest amount paid in criminal restitution up to that time. “Companies don’t just pony up that kind of money to a prosecutor who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” says Canellos. “It is not good news for guilty defendants when they hear Richard is on the other side.”

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