ST. LOUIS • A former Washington University employee was acquitted Wednesday of federal computer fraud charges that claimed he'd downloaded protected financial information related to the school's endowment.
David Shen, 45, of New Jersey, was manager of asset allocation and risk management for the Washington University Investment Management Company. He worked there from February 2009 until October 2011, when he resigned in “in lieu of termination” after admitting that he'd anonymously emailed Washington University's chief investment officer when he found out his supervisor was looking for a new job, court documents show.
Prosecutors say the university failed to cut off Shen's access to two proprietary financial information database accounts after he left, and he continued to access those databases. Washington University pays $400,000 per year for access to one database, known as Albourne, and has paid a total of over $300,000 over less than five years to access another, known as Burgiss, a government pre-trial brief says.
Prosecutors said Shen downloaded about 800 documents from the databases from Oct 7 to Nov. 26.
Defense lawyer Nick Zotos said that Shen was a “voracious reader” who was downloading historical performance information for some hedge funds in which the endowment was invested.
Shen had been discussing his concerns about the performance of some hedge funds with an endowment trustee, and was simply continuing that research, Zotos said.
“And we argued to the jury that this was loyalty. Even though he's resigned he feels that he needs to continue this conversation with the trustee,” he said.
Zotos said he only talked to one juror after the trial. “Nobody thought he hacked anything because he had a valid ID and and a valid password,” he said, adding that there was also no evidence that Shen was pretending to still be an employee.
Zotos said Thursday that before the trial began, prosecutors offered to drop two charges and allow Shen to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for probation.
Instead, he went to trial on charges of accessing a protected computer without authorization, attempting to access a protected computer and wire fraud.
In an email, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan wrote, "I respect the jury’s decision. While understandably no one wants their computer system accessed by a former employee, there are technical issues in these types of cases which can be problematical in a criminal prosecution."
The University of Shanghai graduate came to the U.S. in 1990 and went on to earn master's degrees in finance and systems engineering, Zotos said.
He worked for investment firms and at the World Bank before taking the Washington University job.
Shen was working in New Jersey at the time of his indictment.
“It was a wonderful verdict,” Zotos said. “He was just crying and crying afterward. As you know, it's awful ballsy to go to trial when offered a misdemeanor — and for a guy who is in risk management.”