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FBI opens inquiry into suspect Heinz trading

The FBI is examining a series of well-timed options trades a day before Heinz agreed to be sold.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The FBI is examining a series of well-timed options trades a day before Heinz agreed to be sold.

NEW YORK — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an inquiry into suspicious trades placed ahead of the $23 billion acquisition of H.J. Heinz Co., a person briefed on the matter said.

The FBI’s involvement adds to the scrutiny surrounding the deal. Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission froze a Swiss account linked to possible insider trading in the Heinz takeover.

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Like the SEC, the FBI’s office in New York, one of the main players behind the government’s recent crackdown on insider trading, is examining a series of well-timed options trades made a day before Berkshire Hathaway and the investment firm 3G Capital agreed to buy Heinz. The deal sent the shares — and the value of the options contracts — soaring.

‘‘The FBI is consulting with the SEC to see if a crime was committed,’’ an FBI spokesman said in a statement.

The investigation centers on an unusual spike in options trades involving Heinz. The traders bought 2,533 call options on Wednesday through a Swiss account at Goldman Sachs, according to the SEC, which called the activity a drastic uptick.

At the time of the SEC’s action on Friday, authorities had not determined the identity of the traders, and the FBI declined to comment further on Tuesday. Goldman, which is not accused of wrongdoing, was the conduit for the trades. A bank spokesman said Goldman was cooperating with the investigation.

Using what is known as a call option, the unknown traders placed a bet on Heinz without actually buying shares. Instead, the investors have the opportunity to buy the stock at a given price through June.

The anonymous investors spent nearly $90,000 on the call options, a position that skyrocketed on paper to $1.8 million after the deal was announced Thursday. At the time, Heinz’s stock rose to $72.50, up 20 percent from Wednesday, matching the offer price.

‘‘The timing, size, and profitability of the defendants’ trades, as well as the lack of prior history of significant trading in Heinz’’ in the account, the commission said in the complaint, ‘‘makes these trades highly suspicious.’’

The growing inquiry may cast a cloud over the Heinz deal. While the SEC already raised concerns, the FBI’s examination adds to the scrutiny and for the first time raises the prospect of criminal wrongdoing.

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