Bill Hwang, Bob Menendez and a $5 Salad: NY’s Courthouse Oscars

(Bloomberg) -- Bill Hwang recently walked out of Wall Street’s trial of the decade to a flank of TV cameras. They were pointed in the other direction.

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For weeks in lower Manhattan courthouses, an Oscars-like procession of politicians and Wall Street figures have been crossing paths at a slew of simultaneous trials, seizing the spotlight and sometimes eclipsing each other. Above them all was Donald Trump, freshly tried and convicted in a hush-money case and due back next month for sentencing — not to mention the appeal he has in the works.

But nearby are several more. Senator Bob Menendez is on trial for bribery around the corner in federal court, drawing his own team to the 23rd floor of 500 Pearl Street.

A few floors above those proceedings, exiled Chinese tycoon and Steve Bannon associate Guo Wengui is standing trial for allegedly swindling investors out of $1 billion by trumpeting his fight against the Communist Chinese autocracy.

Sandwiched between those trials is Hwang’s, where prosecutors are trying to persuade a jury that he built a fleeting $36 billion fortune through a market-manipulation racket that helped topple the once-mighty Credit Suisse Group AG.

Hwang Sightings

At some of the craziest moments, swarms of reporters, supporters, protesters and police were so focused on Trump’s case, or on Menendez, that other newsmakers quietly slipped past unnoticed. Hwang, especially, has benefited, often coming and going through a back entrance on Pearl Street and walking past the politically-minded hordes without drawing a second glance.

One morning Hwang — whose case has captivated New York’s financial industry — was seen waiting in the federal courthouse’s marble foyer alone, peering at a framed sketch by a courtroom artist from the trial of Stefan Lumiere. Lumiere, a former portfolio manager, was convicted in the same building in 2017 for inflating the price of bonds to hide losses from investors. He got 18 months.

Behind Hwang and visible through the glass, his former chief of risk management, Scott Becker — who was about to testify against him — made his way through security ahead of Menendez.

Among the dozen-odd Hwang supporters who have turned up to sit on the hardwood benches in US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein’s courtroom are Hwang’s wife, a documentary filmmaker and employees of his nonprofit group, The Grace and Mercy Foundation.

Chicken Salad and War Rooms

Most days, Hwang and his entourage sit down for lunch in the court cafeteria, where there’s a brisk trade in $5 chicken salad and pizza during the 1 p.m. rush. Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers grab and go, retreating to various war rooms around the building to strategize.

Even the judge was spotted having lunch there. With reporters in earshot, he joked that they shouldn’t speak too loudly or he’d listen in.

Hwang’s co-defendant, former Archegos chief financial officer Patrick Halligan, walked past Hwang’s party, which was spread across three tables, and settled for a seat on the outdoor patio with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Planetary Convergence

Manhattan’s courthouse district has long been the backdrop for the biggest cases in the US, and its share of gawkers, but rarely does all the action converge this way, like a planetary alignment of the justice system. Every weekday, as regular as the sunrise, defendants join the security line with prospective jurors, witnesses and, if it’s a Friday, soon-to-be US citizens attending naturalization ceremonies.

Menendez was snapped stepping out of the federal courthouse’s revolving door one day, a spectator’s red Trump 2024 flag fluttering above his head. Using a path cleared by US Marshals, the New Jersey Democrat walked purposefully past the throng to an idling navy Honda sedan and disappeared down Worth Street headed toward Chinatown. He did get a “Hey Menendez!” from one guy, who added an unimaginative seven-letter epithet.

The crowd quickly returned to watching the back of the state courthouse, where they had gathered each day before 4 p.m. hoping for a glimpse of the only former president to be indicted, behind a heavily tinted car window as his convoy rolled past. Now they were holding vigil over the verdict.

“Greet him, comfort him,” one woman sporting a Make America Great Again cap said. “We can’t do more than that.”

--With assistance from Bob Van Voris and Chris Dolmetsch.

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