Swiss authorities said on Monday they have not yet been asked to help a U.S. investigation into alleged insider trading in call options of H.J. Heinz Co the day before the company announced it would be sold, even though a Zurich account is at the heart of the matter.
U.S. securities regulators filed suit on Friday against as-yet-unidentified traders in Heinz options alleging they traded on inside information before the company made public the deal to be bought for $23 billion (14.8 billion pounds) by an investor group made up of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc and Brazil's 3G Capital Partners.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said in a statement on Friday it had obtained "an emergency court order to freeze assets in a Zurich, Switzerland-based trading account that was used to reap more than $1.7 million from trading in advance of yesterday's public announcement about the acquisition of H.J. Heinz Company."
The order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York freezes the traders' assets and prohibits them from destroying any evidence, the SEC statement said.
SEC spokesman John Nester said on Monday that the assets concerned had been frozen in the United States, not Switzerland, though the "beneficial owners" were those allegedly behind the Swiss account. He did not respond immediately when asked if the U.S. authorities were in contact with their Swiss counterparts.
With the assets frozen, the SEC would have had no immediate need for Swiss assistance in the case, although it eventually may need help to identify the account holders.
Rainer Borer, a spokesman for the Swiss financial markets watchdog known as FINMA, said a U.S. court cannot by itself freeze assets in an account of a bank operating in Switzerland.
"For that, it has to ask for legal or administrative assistance," he told Reuters. "Up to now, FINMA has not received a U.S. request for administrative assistance in the mentioned case of potential insider trading."
Justice ministry spokesman Folco Galli said the ministry had not received an official request for legal assistance either.
"Either a request for administrative or legal assistance would be necessary because a U.S. court cannot enforce a coercive measure in Switzerland," he said.
U.S. bank Goldman Sachs has said it is co-operating with the SEC probe. The SEC suit filed Friday refers to the account in Switzerland as the "GS Account."
Heinz had no comment, Michael Mullen, a company spokesman, said by email. Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital likewise declined to comment, said Gemma Hart, a spokeswoman for the investor group.
(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Additional reporting by Martin de Sa'Pinto in Zurich and Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Marguerita Choy)