Samuel Waksal, the jet-setting scientist-entrepreneur who founded ImClone Systems, pleaded guilty Tuesday to bank and securities fraud in a mushrooming scandal that also threatens his friend and investor Martha Stewart.
Waksal, 55, became the second person to plead guilty in the federal probe of insider trading of the biotech company’s stock.
Waksal did not implicate Stewart in his plea, and the plea was not part of an agreement to cooperate with authorities.
In fact, prosecutors did not agree to dismiss other charges still pending against Waksal and indicated they were widening their probe.
In an unusual move, prosecutors said they are investigating previously undisclosed sales of $30 million worth of ImClone stock by an unidentified Waksal associate that may result in new insider trading charges against him and others.
“Dr. Waksal may have tipped others who sold stock,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Schachter said in Manhattan federal court. He said the $30 million in sales began just after a phone conversation between Waksal and the seller.
Schachter also said a “close friend” of Waksal quickly dumped $600,000 worth of stock.
Waksal pleaded guilty Tuesday to six counts, including securities fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and perjury, in a scheme to tip off his daughter, Aliza, to unload ImClone stock before it plunged on bad news from the Food and Drug Administration.
“I’ve made some terrible mistakes and I deeply regret what has happened,” Waksal said outside court.
He remained free on bail until his sentencing in January. He could face a total of 65 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines, although his sentence will likely be far less.
In outlining the accusations against Waksal, Schachter issued a stinging attack on the disgraced ex-CEO, charging he had used his family members as “human shields” to try to save himself from prosecution. The government has accused Waksal of tipping off his father as well, although he did not plead to that charge Tuesday.
The former ImClone CEO was arrested in June on charges of passing along information that the Food and Drug Administration would not review his company’s experimental cancer drug, Erbitux.
“I am aware that my conduct, while I was in possession of material non-public information, was wrong,” Waksal said in court.
The bank fraud charge, which alone carries a possible 30-year sentence, stemmed from Waksal forging the name of ImClone’s top lawyer to a document securing a line of credit.
“Rather than have the ImClone general counsel sign the letter, I signed the letter,” he told the judge.
ImClone prosecutors continue to focus attention on Stewart and her stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic. The home decorating entrepreneur and Bacanovic, a Merrill Lynch broker, have denied wrongdoing and have not been charged.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Stewart knowingly lied to lawmakers about her stock sale. Stewart sold nearly 4,000 ImClone shares on Dec. 27, one day before the FDA publicly announced its Erbitux decision. She has maintained she had a standing order to sell the shares if the stock dropped below $60.
Stewart spokeswoman Allyn Magrino issued a statement, attributed to Stewart’s legal counsel, saying, “Sam Waksal’s guilty plea has nothing to do with Martha Stewart.”
Bacanovic’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.
An assistant to Bacanovic, Douglas Faneuil, initially backed Stewart’s account, but later admitted he withheld information when first interviewed by investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI.
As part of a guilty plea entered this month, Faneuil agreed to testify against Stewart and others if they are charged in connection with the scandal. Faneuil pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of accepting gifts in exchange for not giving probers details about Stewart’s sale of her shares.
Waksal resigned in May, when the company learned that federal charges were going to be filed.
Waksal has been a colorful figure in the mostly staid pharmaceutical industry. Along with a doctorate in immunobiology, he has a $20 million art collection, including a Picasso, and a circle of friends that includes Revlon CEO Ron Perelman and rock star Mick Jagger.
His style and extraordinary confidence permeated ImClone’s culture and operations. While other biotech companies hosted simple dinners at a major cancer meeting last year, for example, ImClone rented out a bar and hired the Doobie Brothers to perform.
Waksal is one of growing number of executives who have been accused of white-collar crimes this year. After the collapse of Enron Corp. last year, federal authorities have uncovered corporate scandals at multibillion-dollar companies including WorldCom, Tyco International and Adelphia Communications.