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MF Global Exec Pleads Fifth When Questioned About Missing $1 Billion

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Former chairman and CEO of MF Global and former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine testifies during a hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee on Dec. 15, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former chairman and CEO of MF Global and former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine testifies during a hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee on Dec. 15, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Three MF Global executives say they are cooperating with a Justice Department investigation into more than $1 billion in customer money that vanished before the firm collapsed. But they largely deflected questions about the missing money at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Edith O’Brien, a fourth executive who had the authority to approve a transfer, declined to answer questions, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Lawmakers expressed frustration over the limited information provided by the witnesses during a three-hour hearing of the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee. The panel was trying to piece together what happened in the final days before the firm filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 31.

The witnesses — senior finance executives and the firm’s general counsel — barely mentioned MF Global’s departed CEO, Jon Corzine.

Corzine, a former Democratic New Jersey senator and governor, testified in December that he never instructed anyone to misuse customer funds.

“Apparently no one did anything wrong, but there’s more than a billion dollars missing,” Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., the subcommittee’s senior Democrat, told the executives.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, another Massachusetts Democrat, said: “It is utterly disgraceful what has happened here. It’s not believable, I’ve got to tell you.”

A key issue raised at the hearing was whether MF Global improperly transferred $200 million from a customer account to cover a shortfall in an overseas account held by the firm.

O’Brien, a former assistant treasurer at MF Global, was subpoenaed to testify about an email she sent, which appears to contradict testimony from Corzine.

The email says Corzine ordered the transfer on Oct. 28 to cover an overdraft in the firm’s bank account in London. The committee cited the email in a memo released last week.

“On the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based on my constitutional right,” O’Brien responded to a question about the transfer.

In addition to Congress, federal regulators and a federal grand jury in Chicago are investigating the MF Global failure. No one has been charged in the case. If the firm misused client money, it would violate a fundamental investor protection for people who trade options and futures.

Christine Serwinski, the firm’s chief financial officer for North America, Chief Financial Officer Henri Steenkamp and General Counsel Laurie Ferber all told the panel they have provided information to Justice Department investigators about the case and are cooperating with the government’s criminal investigation.

Serwinski told the panel that she learned on Oct. 27 of a “substantial deficit” in cash kept by the firm in customer accounts to cushion against potential losses. She said the deficit didn’t violate federal rules but made her uncomfortable.

Serwinski said O’Brien and Global Treasurer Vinay Mahajan were the two people who had the authority to approve the $200 million transfer out of the customer account.

A JPMorgan Chase executive said the bank asked Corzine for written assurances that the Oct. 28 transfer satisfied federal rules.

“Mr. Corzine said he understood the request and would have someone within his organization review it,” Diane Genova, the JPMorgan’s deputy general counsel told the panel. She said JPMorgan received “multiple clear oral assurances” from senior MF Global executives that the firm complied with the rules in the transfer.

Corzine and Steenkamp have testified that they didn’t become aware of the shortfall in customer money until hours before the bankruptcy filing.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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