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2 Bear Stearns Execs Cleared of Conspiracy

Two Bear Stearns executives who ran hedge funds that crashed in 2007 amid the subprime mortgage meltdown were acquitted Tuesday of lying to investors about the looming crisis on Wall Street.

Jurors found Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin not guilty of conspiracy and other charges in an alleged fraud that cost 300 investors about $1.6 billion and nearly caused the demise of Bear Stearns itself. The firm barely avoided bankruptcy in a rescue buyout by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The jury began deliberating on Monday.

Both men had been charged with three counts of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Cioffi was also charged with insider trading.

Tannin left the courtroom without comment. Cioffi said only, "I'm happy."

During a monthlong trial in federal court in Brooklyn, prosecutors relied on a series of e-mails they alleged revealed behind-the-scenes alarm at the hedge funds as investments in complex, high-risk securities tied to the subprime market began to slide.

"The subprime market looks pretty damn ugly," Tannin wrote to Cioffi in April 2007. If Bear's internal reports were accurate, Tannin suggested, "I think we should close the funds now," and "the entire subprime market is toast."

The situation became so dire that Cioffi pulled $2 million of his own cash from the fund, but the pair still told investors that they should stay in and that the outlook was good, prosecutors said. He also was accused of hiding news that one worried investor had decided to pull out $57 million from the funds.

Based on a credit analysis, "there's no basis for thinking this is one big disaster," Cioffi told investors in a recorded conference call with investors that was played for jurors.

The defendants "lied to their investors. They defrauded their investors. The misled their investors," prosecutor James McGovern said in his closing argument. "And it's time for them to be held accountable."

Defense attorneys sought to convince the jury that the e-mails were taken out of context. Cioffi and Tannin, they said, had no motive to steer investors off a cliff, and were honest with them about the volatility of the market.

Prosecutors failed to show that the managers "knew what the future held and they hatched a criminal scheme to lie to investors," Cioffi's attorney, Susan Brune, said in closing arguments.

Added Brune: "This is a case that is built on hindsight bias."