Cases against federal employees alleging insider trading have been very rare. Interestingly, however, almost concurrently with the reintroduction of the STOCK Act to ban such trading comes news that the SEC has charged a Food and Drug Administration employee with insider trading:
The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chemist with insider trading on confidential information about upcoming announcements of FDA drug approval decisions, generating more than $3.6 million in illicit profits and avoided losses.
The SEC alleges that Cheng Yi Liang illegally traded in advance of at least 27 public announcements about FDA drug approval decisions involving 19 publicly traded companies. Some announcements concerned the FDA’s approval of new drugs while others concerned negative FDA decisions. In each instance, he traded in the same direction as the announcement. Liang went to great lengths to conceal his insider trading. He traded in seven brokerage accounts, none of which were in his name. One belonged to his 84-year-old mother who lives in China. ...
Daniel M. Hawke, Chief of the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit, added, “The insider trading laws apply to employees of the federal government just as they do to Wall Street traders, corporate insiders, or hedge fund executives. Many government agencies like the FDA routinely possess and generate confidential market-moving information. Federal employees who misappropriate such information to engage in insider trading risk exposing themselves to potential civil and criminal charges for violating the federal securities laws.”
Employees, yes. members of Congress, not so much. I explain all in Insider Trading Inside the Beltway:
In United States v. O'Hagan, the US SCOTUS grounded liability under the misappropriation theory on deception of the source of the information; the theory addresses the use of “confidential information for securities trading purposes, in breach of a duty owed to the source of the information.” According to the Court, “a fiduciary’s undisclosed, self serving use of a principal’s information to purchase or sell securities, in breach of a duty of loyalty and confidentiality, defrauds the principal of the exclusive use of that information.” So defined, the Court held, the misappropriation theory satisfies § 10(b)’s requirement that there be a “deceptive device or contrivance” used “in connection with” a securities transaction.
Where a Member of Congress, a Congressional staffer, or other government information obtains material nonpublic information in the course of their duties and then uses it to trade in the stock of the relevant issuer, their conduct could be colloquially described as a theft of the information, but under O’Hagan any potential insider trading liability under the misappropriation theory would require proof of a duty of disclosure between the official and the source of the information.
The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch provide that: “Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain.” Accordingly, an employee of the Executive Branch should be deemed an agent of the government or, at least, to stand in a similar relationship of trust and confidence with the government. The Standards further provide that: “An employee shall not engage in a financial transaction using nonpublic information, nor allow the improper use of nonpublic information to further his own private interest or that of another, whether through advice or recommendation, or by knowing unauthorized disclosure.” As such, the relationship between the government and one of its employees is such that the undisclosed use by the latter of information gained in the course of his employment would give rise to liability under the misappropriation theory.
The SEC alleges that Liang used the trading profits for his own personal benefit. Checks totaling at least $1.2 million were written from the accounts he used for trading to a bank account in his name, to him or his wife directly, or to credit card companies to pay off balances in accounts in his or his wife’s name. Nearly $65,000 worth of checks were written from the brokerage accounts to car dealerships to purchase vehicles later registered to Liang and his wife.
 5 C.F.R. § 2635.101. I assuming here that government ethics rules embodied in the terms of employment of government employees banning the use of nonpublic information for personal gain will be deemed to constitute the requisite agreement. In fact, however, the question of whether an employee handbook constitutes a contract arises in many legal settings and, in general, does not admit of easy resolution. See generally 19 Williston on Contracts § 54:10 (4th ed. 2009) (discussing cases).
 Joseph Kalo, Deterring Misuse of Confidential Government Information: A Proposed Citizens’ Action, 72 Mich. L. Rev. 1577, 1581 (1974) (“The application of fiduciary duties to activities of government employees is not novel.”).
 5 C.F.R. § 2634.703(a). Nonpublic information is defined for this purpose as “information that the employee gains by reason of Federal employment and that he knows or reasonably should know has not been made available to the general public.” Id., § 2634.703(b).