Hedge Fund Fugitive Caught in Austria After Five Years

The five-year getaway of a banker whose U.S. fund lost $400 million when he bet against the Internet stockmarket bubble in the late 1990s ended on Friday when he was caught in Austria, police said on Monday.

Michael Berger, an Austrian national who pleaded guilty to charges of securities fraud in a Manhattan court in 2000 and then went fugitive in March 2002, was arrested while driving towards Salzburg.

"He was in hiding. It took a quite a long time until we hit on where he was," said Gerald Hesztera, spokesman for Austria's federal police.

Hesztera declined to give details on how he was found. "We were seeking him for five years, together with the FBI," he said.

Hesztera identified the man only as "Michael B.," but Vienna state prosecutor Gerhard Jarosch confirmed that he was indeed Michael Berger, a man sought by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) since 2002 for failure to appear in court.

Berger, who is now 35, launched his Manhattan Investment Fund hedge fund in 1996. The fund suffered enormous losses when Berger bet against technology and Internet stocks between 1996 and 1999 as their prices were skyrocketing.

His fund went bust in January 2000, just two months before the Internet stockmarket bubble did burst in March 2000.

In the 1990s, Berger was able to raise over $575 million from investors by overstating the performance and market value of the hedge fund's holdings, prosecutors have said in proceedings against Berger from 2000.

Berger admitted in his guilty plea that he sent out misleading statements to investors in his fund between 1996 and 2000 when the market turned against him. His fund went bust in January 2000 with $400 million in losses.

Berger tried to withdraw his plea a year later, alleging he had been mentally incompetent at the time he admitted guilt. A judge dismissed his motion and ruled there was no evidence he was incompetent to plead guilty.

Berger was free on bail pending his sentencing but failed to show up at a court hearing on March 1, 2002. He has been on the run since.

As an Austrian national, Berger cannot be extradited to the United States, where he would face up to 10 years in jail and fines of at least $1.25 million plus restitution.

However, Bank Austria was among the investors who lost money in his scheme and has charged him with fraud in Austria as well.

News of Berger's arrest comes just a week before an Austrian court will hear a case against eight bankers involved in the loss of billions of euros -- and its cover-up -- at trade union-owned bank BAWAG P.S.K. which emerged last year.