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Spitzer, Merrill in talks
NY attorney general reportedly seeking restitution for investors who lost money following analysts.
April 15, 2002: 5:18 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is trying to settle his case against Merrill Lynch & Co. involving the firm's analysts' recommendation , a spokeswoman for Spitzer said Monday.

"There appears be a basis for productive discussion," said spokeswoman Juanita Scarlett. "The attorney general would like to resolve the matter through negotiations."

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But Scarlett could not confirm a report in the Wall Street Journal, which said Spitzer is seeking more than $100 million in restitution.

Scarlett said it is "too soon to have any numbers that seem to be definitive" and that numbers are moving back and forth.

The Journal, quoting unnamed people familiar with the negotiations, said top Merrill executives called Spitzer's office late last week to begin serious talks on a settlement after negative publicity surrounding Spitzer's probe led to a 12 percent drop in the value of Merrill stock. Shares of Merrill (MER: up $0.62 to $47.51, Research, Estimates) rose slightly Monday.

Spitzer won a court order demanding changes in Merrill's analysts' rating systems last week, but the brokerage obtained a stay of that order until Friday.

Spitzer's office released e-mails gathered as part of its investigation suggesting analysts believed the companies that were receiving strong ratings were bad investments, but that they were under pressure not to anger companies that were giving Merrill their investment banking business. Spitzer said the action against Merrill is only the start of his probe and that other brokerage houses also will be examined.

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A source familiar with the situation told CNNfn last week that subpoenas have been served by the state of New York to Morgan Stanley, Salomon Smith Barney, Credit Suisse First Boston, Bear Stearns and UBS-PaineWebber.

Subpoenas are expected to be served to J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Lazard Freres, the source said.

The Journal report says Spitzer's office is demanding Merrill concede that it did something wrong, that the firm must make substantial changes in its research process, and the firm must provide some mechanism whereby individual investors can recover money they lost following the firm's research.

Merrill already settled one case for $400,000 last year to compensate an investor who lost money following the advice of its former Internet stock analyst Henry Blodget.

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Spitzer also had suggested that Merrill think about spinning off its research operations, but that idea was rejected by the firm because the research division does not produce the fees necessary to be self-sustaining, the paper said.

The attorney general is scheduled to go into court Friday to set its hearing schedule for depositions.  Top of page