By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A defense attorney in the U.S. government's H.J. Heinz Co insider trading case denied on Thursday his client's involvement in such activity before the ketchup maker was sold for $23 billion in February.
It was the first time anyone has appeared for the defense in nearly 7 months, since the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued "unknown traders" for insider trading in Heinz stock. The agency later won a temporary freeze of a related Swiss account, and in August served a summons and complaint to Alpine Swift Ltd, a Cayman Island-based company.
"We had no involvement in the underlying trade," Juan Morillo of the global law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton said on behalf of Alpine Swift at Thursday's hearing.
Court filings do not say what Alpine Swift's business is.
Still no individuals have been named as defendants.
Morillo said Alpine Swift did not come forward earlier because Swiss law precluded it from doing so. Once Alpine was served with the lawsuit, however, it immediately reached out to the SEC, Morillo said.
Morillo declined to discuss the matter further after the hearing.
SEC lawyer Charles Riely told U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff the agency may charge others in the trades.
Riely declined to provide additional details on the case after the hearing.
Rakoff said a trial in the matter will probably start in March.
The SEC initially sued only "unknown traders" on February 15, soon after Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital said they were buying Heinz.
The lawsuit said traders had bought call options that soared 1,700 percent after the deal was announced, generating unrealized profits of more than $1.7 million.
The SEC won a temporary freeze of a Swiss account held by a Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS) private wealth client, and Judge Rakoff later extended the freeze at a hearing in which no one showed up for the defense.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Richard Chang)