When Alshair Fiyaz, a wealthy businessman with a shaggy mane of hair, walked into the garden of London’s Four Seasons Hotel on a pleasant June evening five years ago, he had no idea he was being followed. He was there to meet Walid Choucair, a trader wearing a hoodie who collected “Star Wars” memorabilia and expensive guitars. Neither one noticed an officer from the National Crime Agency stick a recording device in the greenery.
The investigator was tracking Fiyaz in connection with an insider-trading probe being conducted by the NCA, the U.K. equivalent of the FBI. Choucair wasn’t a suspect, and the officer didn’t know who he was before planting the bug. But after the meeting, the officer followed Choucair to an apartment near the Royal Albert Hall on the edge of Hyde Park.
That fateful encounter at the Four Seasons, recounted in court, would turn Choucair, whose life was an adrenaline-charged chase for information about big deals, into Europe’s most high-profile insider-trading defendant. And his two trials—the first ended last year in a hung jury, the second with a conviction last week—opened a window on a loose network of traders from London to Dubai as well as a multinational investigation into suspected insider trading.
Fiyaz’s name, and details of the Four Seasons meeting, came up frequently at the trials. Choucair said he often discussed trades with Fiyaz, who was so successful he’d bought an 86-meter yacht and a polo club. The two had partied at Tramp, a London club frequented by rock stars and royals, where they spent thousands of dollars on three-liter bottles of Cristal. Financial institutions alerted U.K. regulators about Fiyaz’s trading 71 times in 2013 and 2014, Choucair’s lawyer told the court, citing information from the regulator. Yet Fiyaz wasn’t in the dock. He’s never been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing.
But evidence, testimony and legal filings from Choucair’s trials, as well as interviews with traders, their friends, lawyers and people close to the investigation suggest Fiyaz may have been part of a network that cultivated ties to bankers, shared tips via burner phones to avoid detection, fed information to journalists and often secretly monitored each other’s trades. Using their own money or funds from wealthy associates, they made tens of millions of dollars betting on stocks just before a news splash popped the share price. In 2014, the core group of about a dozen traders made more than $100 million, a figure arrived at by adding up figures in legal filings and conversations with traders.
Regulators in France and the U.K., where abnormal trading occurs ahead of more than one in five takeovers, spotted the uncanny timing of transactions by Fiyaz, Choucair and others. In addition to Choucair and Fabiana Abdel-Malek, a UBS Group AG compliance officer convicted at the same trial of providing him with information from a confidential bank database, seven men, including Geneva-based trader Alexis Kuperfis and former Societe Generale SA banker Stephane Fima, have been charged with insider trading in France. All have contested the charges. Another trader was arrested in Serbia in November on a U.S. warrant that alleged he committed securities fraud and was extradited in May, Serbian court officials confirmed. U.S. prosecutors are working with European counterparts on their own probe, Bloomberg News reported last month.
A spokeswoman for Fiyaz said in an email that he has “never been questioned, charged or convicted of insider trading or financial misconduct of any kind in the U.K. or any jurisdiction.” She said the suspicious activity reports related to only 27 trades and were triggered because financial institutions are required to flag transactions when a trader makes more than 10,000 pounds ($13,000) a day, and that Fiyaz hasn’t been the subject of any adverse regulatory findings. Loic Henriot, a lawyer for Kuperfis, said his client has never been part of a network of traders exchanging information. David-Olivier Kaminski, an attorney for Fima, said his client has nothing to do with the investigations that led to Choucair’s conviction.
Choucair, now 40, testified at his trial about his first conversation with Fiyaz, six years his senior, at a pricey Chinese restaurant in London around 2005. They had seen each other at Tramp, where Choucair, the son of a Lebanese construction executive, was a member. Fiyaz and his brother Javed started showing up that year, according to two people familiar with the club scene. They would arrive in separate Rolls-Royces, descend the stairs, pass the red-neon Let’s Get Tramped sign and set up camp in a corner, surrounded by a clutch of women. Choucair would spend thousands of dollars in that den two or three times a month. Whenever he ordered a $4,000 bottle of Champagne, the staff would play the “Star Wars” theme music and announce “Lebanon is in the house,” according to people who’d been there with him.
Choucair was out with a friend who knew Fiyaz when they spotted each other at the Chinese restaurant. They got to talking. “We spent the whole night having drinks, which I was very good at, and having a conversation, which he was very good at,” Choucair would testify at his trial 14 years later, trying to explain that his stock tips were coming from traders like Fiyaz and Kuperfis and not from his friend at UBS.
Choucair had a privileged upbringing in London. He boarded at Mill Hill, a 212-year-old school set on 150 acres of lush parkland. But it was something more avant-garde that first got his heart racing as a young boy. Watching TV one day, he saw Guns N’ Roses’ wild-haired guitarist Slash tear through a solo and decided he, too, wanted to be a guitar hero. When he was 18, his father died and he inherited a fortune. He spent the next years in a blur of benders, and, in his sober moments, completed a business degree at King’s College London, he said at his trial. He bought an Aston Martin, started collecting guitars and filled his apartment with life-size figures from his other boyhood obsession, “Star Wars.”
Fiyaz was raised with his brother in Belgium, where their father, a Pakistani businessman, had settled. They got started at the family company and made their money from shipping and investments ranging from Nigerian oil blocks to Danish department stores and a chocolatier, according to people who’ve met them and information on their websites. But they also attracted the attention of Belgian police, who suspected them of carrying out a scheme to avoid paying value-added taxes, two people familiar with the matter say. The investigation was closed after Fiyaz and his brother agreed to a settlement including a seven-figure payment, one of the people said. Neither was charged, and there was no admission of wrongdoing. Fiyaz’s spokeswoman said the dispute was over whether sales by his company were exempt.
By the mid-2000s, the brothers had moved to London, where they caused a stir in the Mayfair social scene. Alshair, the younger and more athletic of the two, was permanently dressed to go out. He and Javed faced each other across a pair of imposing desks in an office behind the Dorchester Hotel, where they ran their shipping business. They told people they were looking for fresh investment opportunities.
When Choucair saw Fiyaz’s trading setup, he testified, he was intrigued and wanted in. He said that Fiyaz and Kuperfis, nicknamed the Cowboy because he hit the mark so often, showed him how to competitively trade contracts for difference, or CFDs, derivatives that allow a person to bet on a company’s stock without owning shares. It’s a way of trading on margin. With a relatively small down payment, profits and losses can exceed those when buying shares. Many countries have restricted their sale because retail investors can underestimate the risks and incur outsize losses.
Choucair and his associates were a paradoxical bunch. They relied on each other for tip-offs but were suspicious that others were spying on them. Fiyaz accused his brokers of telling people about his positions in the market, according to four of the traders. Some accused him of scoping out their trading positions. Discretion was paramount, and that included using untraceable communications, Choucair testified. Choucair soon had four handsets with unregistered SIM cards for the traders he was talking to. Fiyaz insisted he keep a line dedicated to him, Choucair said in court. Every few months, the traders replaced their SIM cards, and, often, their devices. Fiyaz’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of Choucair’s testimony but said the jury that convicted him had found it to be untruthful.
In 2011, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission froze assets belonging to Fiyaz and another trader, saying they were suspected of making millions of dollars with the help of inside information on trades related to Lonza Group AG’s $1.2 billion acquisition of Arch Chemicals Inc., which Fiyaz benefited from. Authorities dropped the case the next year because of a lack of evidence, and Fiyaz wasn’t accused of insider trading. Investigators lamented that the other trader had harmed the probe by discarding a BlackBerry that SEC lawyers believed contained text messages about his activity, according to U.S. court filings.
In Choucair’s case, the Financial Conduct Authority, which led the probe, was convinced it had found his insider. Choucair met Abdel-Malek through their mothers. Choucair’s had asked Abdel-Malek’s to make curtains for the tall windows in her son’s apartment. They hit it off and introduced the two children to each other. Abdel-Malek, the oldest of three daughters of religious Coptic Christians from Egypt, was kept on a tight leash, even when she got a position at UBS in London in 2007. By early 2013, Abdel-Malek was a relatively experienced compliance officer at a newly restructured division of the bank. She could look at any deal in which UBS was involved.
She had little contact with Choucair for years. But that spring they reconnected, and he invited her and a friend to Tramp to celebrate his birthday, she testified in court. He spent 10,000 pounds that night on Champagne, vodka and club sandwiches, it came out in court, and the party lasted until 3 a.m. Their friendship developed, though both said the relationship wasn’t romantic. Later that spring, he bought her a BlackBerry identical to her work model with a disposable SIM card.
Prosecutors had company database records showing Abdel-Malek was trawling for deals. She testified that she did this to improve her deals literacy, something her managers had asked her to do. Over the next year, prosecutors said, there were about 30 transactions she kept coming back to, telling Choucair when something was imminent, though the pair were only charged in connection with five of them. When prosecutors presented a motive to the jury, they said the glamour of going to Tramp was enough.
Meanwhile, the wider group of traders kept nailing stock picks before news of pending mergers broke. Fiyaz and Kuperfis made about 55 million euros ($62 million) combined trading ahead of the announcement of General Electric Co.’s 2014 deal to acquire most of Alstom SA, court records and people familiar with the matter said. Fiyaz’s spokeswoman said she was unwilling to comment on his trading earnings but denied any impropriety.
Over time, Fiyaz acquired a mansion on the outskirts of Paris, the Polo Club of St. Tropez and a yacht named Ecstasea with two helicopter landing pads that once belonged to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. While it’s unknown how much Fiyaz paid for the yacht, the previous owner bought it for 100 million euros in 2009, according to a U.K. court document. In 2016, Fiyaz hosted a party aboard Ecstasea for the benefit of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, his spokeswoman said. She declined on privacy grounds to say how much he paid for the yacht.
But the suspected trading network was heading for trouble. Even before the GE-Alstom deal, a friend of another member of the group, a deals lawyer, was getting divorced. It got nasty, and the lawyer’s former brother-in-law wrote a letter to French investigators saying he’d overheard him exchanging tips with a trader, according to people familiar with the information.
Investigators had already dedicated resources to cracking down on insider trading, spurred in part by the French government’s anger that information about the GE-Alstom deal was leaked to the press. The regulators built up phone records connecting the group, the people familiar with the matter said. They secured wiretaps, including for the burner phone of a hair salon owner at one of Paris’s most exclusive hotels, whom they suspected of being a go-between, according to French investigative documents. The trail led to French ski resorts, the Cayman Islands, Geneva and eventually to the garden of London’s Four Seasons Hotel.
A transcript of the recording made at the Four Seasons and shown to the jury at Choucair’s trial revealed he was talking to someone on the phone about a deal for a U.S. energy company. Choucair testified that the person was Jeffrey McCracken, at the time head of deals coverage at Bloomberg News.
Choucair said he often spoke to reporters, sometimes at the behest of other traders, in the hope they would confirm his tips and publish an article that would cause the share price to spike. That day, Choucair testified in the second trial, Fiyaz had come to London to discuss the energy deal. McCracken, who left Bloomberg in 2017 to join CNBC and hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, declined to comment.
Bloomberg reporters regularly receive tips from people active in the market and were first to report on several deals mentioned in this article. The news organization’s policy is not to publish any information without confirming with people who have direct knowledge of the matter. The policy also prohibits telling sources when a story will be published.
Choucair seemed to know about the investigation before his arrest. In November 2014, he called Kuperfis to warn him. There’s a “big f–king investigation,” he blurted out in a conversation recorded by French investigators and played at Choucair’s trial. Within weeks, Kuperfis and two others were raided in France and Geneva. Kuperfis has been charged with insider trading in France in connection with his trading ahead of chemical producer Air Liquide SA’s $10 billion takeover of Airgas Inc., but he has challenged the legality of the wiretaps, and the case hasn’t come to trial. His lawyer said he couldn’t comment on the case other than to say the charges are unfounded.
Choucair’s lawyers said in court that his client knew about the probe because he was told by Fiyaz, who, the lawyer recounted, had claimed he had gotten the information from a National Crime Agency interpreter, according to the judge’s summary of the allegations, which weren’t shared with the jury. Before his arrest, Choucair had written a letter that he hid under a rug in his apartment and that was discovered by investigators, according to the judge’s summary. In it, the summary said, he described what Fiyaz had told him about his NCA sources. The NCA said in December that it’s investigating the matter. Fiyaz’s spokeswoman said he has never had any relationship with investigators at the NCA or other regulatory agencies.
Choucair had his apartment swept for bugs, one person familiar with the matter said, though none were found. He called the FCA, his lawyer said in court. Then, at 6:30 a.m. one morning in September 2015, there was a knock on the door. About a dozen NCA officers had come to arrest him for insider trading. “I knew you were coming,” Choucair said, according to an account his lawyer gave in court.
Across the street, they searched his mother’s house. A few miles away, Abdel-Malek’s sister woke her in her bedroom on the top floor of their family home. Two NCA officers were there to arrest her. They found a printout of price-sensitive information in a Chanel handbag and, according to people with knowledge of the matter, a new 30,000-pound Rolex, worth more than a quarter of her annual salary, along with a receipt. The jury wasn’t told about the watch.