Thursday, August 21, 2014

Is the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Law Working?

Two news articles about the Dodd-Frank whistleblower law caught my eye this week. The first was an Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Joe Nocera profiled a Mass Mutual whistleblower, who received a $400,000 reward—the upper level of the 10-30% of financial recoveries to which Dodd-Frank whistleblowers are entitled.

Regular readers of this blog may know that I met with the SEC, regulators and testified before Congress before the law went into effect about what I thought might be unintended effects on compliance programs. I have blogged about my thoughts on the law here and here

The Mass Mutual whistleblower, Bill Lloyd, complained internally and repeatedly to no avail. Like most whistleblowers, he went external because he felt that no one at his company took his reports seriously. He didn’t go to the SEC for the money. As I testified, people like him who try to do the right thing and try resolve issues within the company (if possible) deserve a reward if their claims have merit.

The second story had a different ending. The Wall Street Journal reported on the Second Circuit opinion supporting Siemens’ claim that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation protection did not extend to its foreign whistleblowing employees. In that case, everything-- the alleged wrongful conduct, the internal reporting, and the termination--happened abroad. The employee did disclose to the SEC, but only after he was terminated, and therefore his retaliation claim relates to his internal reports. The court's reasoning  about the lack of extraterritorial jurisdiction was sound, but this ruling may be a victory for multinationals that may unintentionally undermine the efforts to bring certain claims to internal compliance officers. 

I proudly serve as a “management representative” on the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee with union members, outside counsel, corporate representatives, and academics. Although Dodd-Frank is not in our purview, two dozen other laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley are, and we regularly hear from other agencies including the SEC. I will be thinking of these two news articles at our next meeting in September.

I will also explore these issues and others as the moderator of the ABA 8th Annual Section of Labor and Employment Law Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles, November 5-8, 2014. Panelists include Sean McKessey, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, Mike Delikat of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and Jordan A. Thomas of Labaton Sucharow LLP.

The program is as follows: 

 Program Title: Whistleblower Rewards:  Trends and Emerging Issues in Qui Tam Actions and IRS, SEC & CFTC Whistleblower Rewards Claims

Description:     This session will explore the types of claims that qualify for rewards under the False Claims Act and the rewards programs administered by the Securities & Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Internal Revenue Service, the quantity and quality of evidence needed by the DOJ, IRS, SEC, and CFTC to investigate a case successfully, and current trends in the investigation and prosecution of whistleblower disclosures. The panel also will address, from the viewpoint of in-house counsel, the interplay between these reward claims and corporate compliance and reporting obligations.

If you can think of questions or issues I should raise at either the DOL meeting in DC next month or with our panelists in November, please email me at mnarine@stu.edu or leave your comments below.

August 21, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Call for Abstracts - Normative Business Ethics Workshop Series at Wharton

Wharton

Below is a call for abstracts from Professor Amy Sepinwall (Wharton).

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Call for Abstracts for the Normative Business Ethics Workshop Series of the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research:

Over the 2014-2015 academic year, the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, will be convening a regular works-in-progress series for scholars working in normative business ethics (NBE).

Workshop Objectives:

The series is part of an effort to foster, and increase the prominence of, normative business ethics in the academy and the public sphere. This particular initiative has two key objectives: First, it endeavors to provide a regular forum for scholars working on business ethics from a normative perspective. The community of such scholars is relatively small, and dispersed across numerous institutions, and there are few opportunities for these individuals to convene and share work. This series is an effort to connect these scholars, and enrich their shared intellectual life. Second, the series aims to be especially valuable to junior faculty, by providing them with feedback from, and opportunities to interact with, more established members of the normative business ethics community. To that end, we hope to have one junior author and one senior author at each session. 

Workshop Format:

The workshop will meet roughly once a month over the academic year, for a total of 6 sessions per year. Anyone with an interest in normative business ethics is invited to attend the sessions. Faculty interested in having their paper discussed at the workshop should submit an abstract and list, in order of preference, the date(s) they could present from those listed below. (Further information about submission can be found under the “Call for Abstracts” below.) Two draft papers will be selected for each session. Complete draft papers will be circulated at least one week in advance of each session and participants will be expected to have read them carefully, and to arrive at the workshop prepared to offer constructive feedback.

The sessions will be structured so as to maximize the opportunity for paper improvement through the comments of a community of scholars committed to normative business ethics. To that end, authors will not present at the session for which their paper has been assigned. Instead, those gathered will go around the table and each participant will offer a few points of feedback on the paper.

An author whose paper is selected for presentation in a given semester will bear an obligation to attend the other two sessions that semester or to send feedback via email to the authors whose papers are presented at any session that she is unable to attend. In this way, each author will be assured of a good number of responses to her paper.

The Zicklin Center will provide the room and refreshments for each session. Attendees will be asked to pay for their own travel expenses. Some travel funding is available for paper authors for the session at which their paper will be discussed.

For Fall 2014, the workshop will be held on the following dates:

Friday, October 10, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.

Friday, November 14, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.

Friday, December 5, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.

Call for Abstracts

We invite individuals interested in workshopping a paper in normative business ethics to submit a paper abstract. The abstract should be a maximum of 500 words, and the accompanying email should indicate preferred dates of presentation from those listed above. Please send these to Lauretta Tomasco, tomascol@wharton.upenn.edu, by September 1, 2014. Individuals will be notified about whether their paper has been selected for presentation by September 15, 2014.

Please address all questions to Amy Sepinwall, sepin@wharton.upenn.edu.

August 9, 2014 in Business Associations, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Ethics, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Was Dov Charney too hot for the American Apparel Board to handle?

Warning- do not click on the first link if you do not want to see nudity.

Dov Charney founded retailer American Apparel in 1998 and it became an instant sensation with its 20-something year old consumer base. He mixed a "made in America- sweatshop free" CSR focus with a very sexy/sexual set of ads (hence the warning- - when I first created the link, the slideshow went from a topless “Eugenia in disco pants in menthe” (seriously) to a shot of adorable children’s clothing in about 10 seconds).  No wonder my 18-year old son, who leaves for art school in two weeks, appreciates the ad campaigns. Most of his friends do too- both the males and females. In fact, he indicated that although they all know about the “sweatshop free” ethos, because “it’s in your face when you walk in the stores,” that’s not what draws them to the clothes. As a person who blogs and writes about human rights and supply chains, I almost wish he had lied to me. But he’s no different than many consumers who over-report their interest in ethical sourcing, but then tend to buy based on quality, price and convenience. I am still researching this issue for my upcoming article on CSR, disclosure regimes and human rights but see here, here, here and here for some sources I have used in the past.  My son’s friends--the retailer’s target demographic-- appreciate that the clothes are “sweatshop free” but don’t make their buying decisions because of it. They buy because of the clothes and to a lesser extent, the ads.

The first time I ever really thought about the store was after a 2005 20/20 expose about Charney, who was accused of, among other things, sexually harassing and intimidating numerous employees.  At the time I was a management-side employment lawyer and corporate compliance officer and thought to myself “what a nightmare for whomever has to defend him.” It’s pretty hard to shock an employment lawyer, but the allegations, which continued until his ouster last month, were pretty egregious.  After over 10 years of lawsuits, the company terminated him for breaching his fiduciary duty, violating company policy, and misusing corporate assets.

Recently, American Apparel’s employment practices liability insurance rose from $350,000 to $1 million, I can only assume, because of his actions and not due to the other 10,000 company employees. The company has been sued repeatedly by the EEOC and not just for sexual allegations. Purportedly, the company, which has never traded above $7.00 a share and today is a steal at $.97, could not get financing from some sources as long as Charney was at the helm.

My son and his friends did not know about the termination or the harassment allegations over the years, but he says that the nature of the allegations could have caused some of his friends to stop and think about whether they wanted to patronize the stores. I have some 30-something friends who refuse to shop there. Could this be why the store chose to add a female director? As I explained to a reporter last week, the company shouldn’t need a female perspective to realize that the founder is, to put it mildly, a risk. And in fact, as studies cited by my co-blogger Josh Fershee noted earlier this week, being the “woman’s voice” may minimize her perceived effectiveness. Yes, it’s true that American Apparel took more decisive action than the NFL last week, as Joan Heminway observed, but what took them so long? Is it too little too late? Where was the general counsel when Charney allegedly refused to take his sexual harassment training, which is required by law in California every two years? Where were the other board members who allowed the settlement of case after case involving Charney? I have often found that some of the most vigilant supporters of women in the workplace, especially in harassment matters, are older males who have daughters and wives and who know what it’s like for them. When did the board worry about whether the CEO's well-publicized alleged attacks on employees contradicted the heavy corporate responsibility branding? Did the board meet its Caremark duties?

Ironically, the company’s 10-K filed two months before his termination indicated that, “In particular, we believe we have benefited substantially from the leadership and strategic guidance of Dov Charney. The loss of Dov Charney would be particularly harmful as he is considered intimately connected to our brand identity and is the principal driving force behind our core concepts, designs and growth strategy.”

So at what point between April and June did Charney’s actions go off the scale on the enterprise risk management heat map? COSO, the standard bearer for ERM, encourages boards to focus on: what the firm is willing to accept as it pursues shareholder value; a knowledge of management’s risk management processes that have identified and assessed the most significant enterprise-wide risks; a review of the risk portfolio compared to the risk appetite; and whether management is properly responding to the most significant risks and apprising the board of those risks. Could such an objective risk assessment have even occurred with Charney (the risk) in the room? How could the company have the right tone at the top when the founder/CEO failed to comply with Code of Ethics Rule #2 --“service to the Company never should be subordinated to personal gain and advantage”? The stock price has been falling for years and the company has been struggling. Did the high rates to insure Charney’s conduct finally become too hot to handle? On the other hand, would the directors have made the same decision if the shares were trading at $97 instead of .97? Some shareholders are raising concerns too about why any of the original board members remain given the appalling financial performance.

The board now has a “suitability committee,” which will review the results of an independent investigation into Charney’s actions. Even if the report clears Charney and he’s brought back, the new independent directors will have a lot of questions to answer. The question of whether there is a woman on the board seems to be almost irrelevant given the history. For the record, even though the literature is mixed on the financial benefits of gender and racial diversity, I am a strong proponent of the diversity of viewpoints, particularly those that the underrepresented can bring to the table.

But this board needs to re-establish trust among its investors and funders and then focus on what any retailer should- potential supply chain disruptions, the impact of any immigration reform, currency fluctuations, and keeping their customer base happy and out of competitors H & M and Forever 21. The last thing they need to worry about is how to pay off the victims of their founder’s latest escapades.

 

July 31, 2014 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dodd-Frank Grows Up- Or Does It?

As many have celebrated or decried, Dodd-Frank turned four-years old this week. This is the law that Professor Stephen Bainbridge labeled "quack federal corporate governance round II" (round I was Sarbanes-Oxley, as labeled by Professor Roberta Romano). Some, like Professor Bainbridge, think the law has gone too far and has not only failed to meet its objectives but has actually caused more harm than good (see here, for example).  Some think that the law has not gone far enough, or that the law as drafted will not prevent the next financial crisis (see here, for example). The Council on Foreign Relations discusses the law in an accessible manner with some good links here.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White has divided Dodd-Frank’s ninety-five mandates into eight categories. She released a statement last week touting the Volcker Rule, the new regulatory framework for municipal advisors, additional controls on broker-dealers that hold customer assets, reduced reliance on credit ratings, new rules for unregulated derivatives, additional executive compensation disclosures, and mechanisms to bar bad actors from securities offerings. 

Notwithstanding all of these accomplishments, only a little over half of the law is actually in place. In fact, according to the monthly David Polk Dodd-Frank Progress Report:

As of July 18, 2014, a total of 280 Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirement deadlines have passed. Of these 280 passed deadlines, 127 (45.4%) have been missed and 153 (54.6%) have been met with finalized rules. In addition, 208 (52.3%) of the 398 total required rulemakings have been finalized, while 96 (24.1%) rulemaking requirements have not yet been proposed.

Many who were involved with the law’s passage or addressing the financial crisis bemoan the slow progress. The House Financial Services Committee wrote a 97-page report to call it a failure. So I have a few questions.

1) When Dodd-Frank turns five next year, how far behind will we still be, and will we have suffered another financial blip/setback/recession/crisis that supporters say could have been prevented by Dodd-Frank?

2) How will the results of the mid-term elections affect the funding of the agencies charged with implementing the law?

3) What will the SEC do to address the Dodd-Frank rules that have already been invalidated or rendered otherwise less effective after litigation from business groups such as §1502, Conflict Minerals Rule (see here for SEC response) or §1504, the Resource Extraction Rule (see here for court decision)?

4) Given the SEC's failure to appeal after the proxy access litigation and the success of the lawsuits mentioned above, will other Dodd-Frank mandates be vulnerable to legal challenge?

5) Will the whistleblower provision that provides 10-30% of any recovery over $1 million to qualified persons prevent the next Bernie Madoff scandal? I met with the SEC, members of Congress and testified about some of my concerns about that provision before entering academia, and I hope to be proved wrong. 

Let's wait and see. I look forward to seeing how much Dodd-Frank has grown up this time next year.

July 24, 2014 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What can lawyers, professors and students learn from a corporate idealist?

In last week’s post about the business of the World Cup, I indicated that I would review Christine Bader’s book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. I have changed my mind, largely because I don’t have much to add to the great reviews the book has already received. Instead I would like to talk about how lawyers, professors and students can use the advice, even if they have no desire to do corporate social responsibility work as Bader did, or worse, they think CSR and signing on to voluntary UN initiatives is really a form of "bluewashing."

Bader earned an MBA and worked around the world on BP’s behalf on human rights initiatives. This role required her to work with indigenous peoples, government officials and her peers within BP convincing them of the merits of considering the human rights, social, and environmental impacts. She then worked with the UN and John Ruggie helping to develop the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines which outline the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate duty to respect human rights, and both the state and corporations' duty to provide judicial and non-judicial remedies to aggrieved parties. She now works as a lecturer at Columbia University, where she teaches human rights and business and she also advises BSR, which focuses on making businesses more sustainable. Her book tells her story but also quotes a number of other CSR professionals and how they have navigated through some of the world’s largest multinationals.

 Bader’s book has some important takeaways for all of us.

1)   In order to have influence, we have to learn to speak the language that our audience understands and appreciates- I tell my students that when they write exams for me, it’s all about me. Other professors want their exams written with certain catchphrases using the IRAC method, and I may want something different. One size does not fit all. Attorneys learn (or get replaced) that some clients want long memos, others want executive summaries and bullet points and all want plain English. Talking to a venture capitalist is different than talking to a circuit court judge. Similarly, many law professors are behind the curve. If we only talk to each other in the jargon of the academy and insulate ourselves, the rest of the world won’t have the benefit of our research because they won’t understand or want to read it. Academics have a lot to contribute, but we need to adapt to our audience whether it’s policymakers, judges, our peers or law students.

 2)   Sometimes we have to be less passionate in making our arguments and appeal to what’s important to our audience- This point relates to Point 1. Bader regularly met with a number of constituencies and was understandably zealous in trying to convince others, internally and externally, about her positions. She and other “corporate idealists” from other firms often learned the importance of language- making a business case to certain internal stakeholders meant talking in terms of the bottom line rather than using the maxim “it’s the right thing to do” or “doing well by doing good.” Good attorneys know how to represent their clients without taking things personally because sometimes the passion can actually dilute effectiveness. As law professors, we need to teach our students to be more effective so that they know how and when to modulate their tone, and how to pivot and change the way they frame their arguments when they can’t convince the recipient of their message.

3)   Almost everything comes down to risk management- Bader often had to focus on risk management and mitigation when her moral arguments fell on deaf ears. Those who teach business should make sure that students have a basic understanding of the pressure points that business people face. For some it may be tax liability. For others it may be the appropriate exit strategy. In essence, it all comes down to understanding the client’s risk profile and being able to advise accordingly. Litigators should also understand risk profiles so that they can develop an appropriate settlement strategy and help their client’s work their way through some of the unexpected pitfalls that may arise over the course of the case.

4)   Building relationships is a critical skill- Bader learned that social interactions with her peers at BP and the external stakeholders after hours greatly increased her effectiveness in dealing with thorny issues that arose during business hours. Lawyers often believe that if they have the substantive knowledge, they are the smartest people in the room. Law firms don’t teach young associates about the importance of emotional intelligence and building relationships with peers, opposing counsel, and clients. In fact, many law students and lawyers believe that having the reputation as a “shark” is the best way to represent clients. We need to teach our students that it’s better to be respected than feared or hated, and that they can disagree without being disagreeable. Those of us in the academy should model that behavior more often.

5) We must learn to compromise and recognize that incremental changes are important too- Bader and other corporate idealists often want to change the world but quickly learn that internal and external stakeholders aren’t ready to move that fast. She discussed “nudging” her client toward the right direction. Law school and law-related television shows lead students to believe that the end game is to win and to win big. In the business world, sometimes there are no big wins. Lawyers and business advisors often take two steps forward and one step back, and that’s ok. Students and attorneys who take classes in alternative dispute resolution learn this valuable skill. Bader and other corporate idealists also realized that you have to work with people on the opposite side who feel just as strongly that their position is on the side of the angels. Lawyers who know how to build relationships and refocus their messaging can influence those on the other side if they are willing to listen, and when necessary compromise and accept small victories.

6)   We can compromise but shouldn’t compromise our values- When Bader felt that her work was no longer fulfilling, she looked for other positions that aligned with her world view. With rising student debt and many lawyers living beyond their means, it’s difficult for lawyers to walk away from a job or client that they don’t like. That’s understandable. It’s more problematic to stay in a situation where there is criminal or ethical misconduct without speaking up or leaving because of the financial handcuffs.  It’s also unacceptable to remain in a culture that stifles a lawyer’s ability to raise issues. In some cases, as alleged with some of the GM lawyers, failure to speak up could literally be a matter of life and death.

I enjoyed this quick read because it reminded me so much of my years in corporate life. Bader’s story can teach all of us, even the non corporate-idealists, valuable lessons about coping and thriving in the business world.

 

July 10, 2014 in Business Associations, Books, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine, Negotiation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Corporate Idealist’s Conflict About Going to Brazil for the World Cup (Twice)- Part One

The title of this post refers to the thought-provoking book by former BP executive, Christine Bader, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. I will save a review for next week in Part 2 of this post. Briefly, Bader discusses the internal and external struggles that she and other “corporate idealists” face when trying to provide practical, culturally appropriate, innovative ways to implement corporate social responsibility and human rights programs around the world. Much of what she said resonated with me based upon my years as a compliance and ethics officer for a multinational corporation and as a current consultant on these issues.

Like comedian/TV commentator John Oliver, I am torn about the World Cup and the significant power that soccer/futbol’s international governing body FIFA has over both Brazil and its residents. His hilarious but educational rant is worth a close watch, and I experienced the conflict he describes firsthand during my two recent trips to Salvador, Brazil. I went to watch what the rest of the world calls “the beautiful game” in a country where soccer is a religion. That's not an exaggeration by the way-- I bought a statuette of a monk holding a soccer ball in a local cathedral. The monk had a place of honor in the display case right next to the rosaries. The Cup has political consequences as well -- if Brazil doesn’t win the Cup at home, politicians will feel it in Fall’s election.

Trip one to Brazil was purely for pleasure with sixteen aficionados to experience one of the world's most diverse and beautiful cultures while catching two matches. Because I have spent the last couple of year’s researching and writing on business and human rights, when the US team advanced to the quarter finals, I took advantage of my frequent flyer miles, hastily organized some meetings with human rights activists that I had never met, snagged a ticket to the US v. Belgium match, and spent three days mixing business with pleasure.

I had done my homework of course (see e.g. this on the money aspect, this petition to vote for the worst sponsor, this on police response to protestors, and this from David Zirin on Brazil's actions with the World Cup and Olympics). I also knew that FIFA, the nonprofit with a one billion dollar reserve, pays no taxes to the host country. Indeed, while FIFA will earn several billions in profit from the 2014 Cup, Brazil will have spent over ten billion to host. Luckily Brazil loves soccer, but as you may have seen on the news, protests have erupted in the major cities about the perceived broken promises from the government to the people. The infrastructure, schools, hospitals and other projects have not materialized as promised. And while FIFA only requires eight stadiums for a World Cup, Brazil inexplicably built twelve. The Manaus Stadium in the middle of the Amazon cost $250 million and there is no soccer team there. At least the Salvador stadium, which cost $350 million to tear down and rebuild, can host its two teams as well as some of the soccer for the 2016 Olympics. The favelas where the poorest residents live are in clear view of the luxurious new facility in Salvador because they are within walking distance.

For the privilege of hosting the Cup, Brazil agreed to suspend its 2003 law banning alcohol in stadiums so that Budweiser could sell beer; institute World Cup courts to fast track convictions; exempt sponsor companies from some taxes; and establish exclusion zones 2 kilometers around FIFA-designated areas so that no local vendors can sell their wares—this in a country that is at the bottom 10% on the world for income inequality.

A few hours after I landed, I met with an organizer of the some of the protests in Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city. The next day I met with an activist for the homeless in the office of the Public Defender for Human Rights. Despite government funding, the Public Defender and activist communities in Salvador work closely together to address human rights abuses. I learned the following, among other things. Over 250,000 people throughout Brazil were displaced for the games, many with no compensation. Salvador, a city with over 4,000 homeless, only developed housing for 200 families despite knowing about the games for seven years. Homeless people who did not move when told were harassed by the police. If the harassment didn’t work, police confiscated their documentation and/or clothing and destroyed them. If that didn’t work, street cleaning trucks bombarded them with soap and water as though they were trash. Through the joint efforts of the Public Defender and activists, this activity, which started last September, largely stopped.

I also learned that religious groups can protest against abortion and drug use in exclusion zones but those protesting against FIFA must secretly hand out pamphlets in groups smaller than three people to avoid detection, arrest and jail time (sometimes charged as “terrorists.”). FIFA established almost a dozen agencies to ensure that the Cup went smoothly but most locals have experienced nothing but serious disruption. Hundreds of vendors who had eagerly staked out spaces to sell to tourists were banned and the government gave them no place else to go. People have died and suffered serious injury as FIFA has pressured the Brazilian government to complete projects on time. Although protestors have not focused on them, others have raised questions about the environmental impact of the Cup.

Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and McDonald's -- all key sponsors paying upwards of a minimum of $10 million-- tout their corporate social responsibility programs so I have the following ten questions about the business of the World Cup.

1)   Is FIFA, the nonprofit corporation, really acting as a quasi-government and if so, what are its responsibilities to protect and respect local communities?

2)   Does FIFA have more power than the host country and will it use that power when it requires voters to consider a bidding country’s human rights record when awarding the 2026 Cup as it has suggested?

3)   If Qatar remains the site of the 2022 Cup after the various bribery and human rights abuse investigations, will FIFA force that country to make concessions about alcohol and gender roles to appease corporate sponsors?

4)   Will/should corporate sponsors feel comfortable supporting the Cup in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 given those countries’ records and the sponsors’ own CSR priorities?

5)   Does FIFA’s antidiscrimination campaign extend beyond racism to human rights or are its own actions antithetical to these rights?

6)   Are the sponsors commenting publicly on the protests and human right violations? Should they and what could they say that has an impact? Should they have asked for or conducted a social impact analysis or is their involvement as sponsors too attenuated for that?

7)   Should socially responsible investors ask questions about whether companies could have done more for local communities by donating to relevant causes as part of their CSR programs?

8)   Are corporations acting as "bystanders", a term coined by Professor Jena Martin?      

9)   Is the International Olympic Committee, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, taking notes?

10)  Do consumers, the beneficiaries of creative corporate commercials and  viral YouTube videos, care about any of this?

I have thoughts but no answers to my questions and will spend my summer on these corporate responsibility issues. I definitely don’t envy the corporate idealists working for any of these sponsors.

 

 

July 4, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine, Television, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lawyers: Be Careful with Email

Friday, June 27, 2014

Easterly on The Tyranny of Experts

On Steve Bradford’s recommendation, I chose William Easterly’s (NYU) The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014) as the book for my annual beach trip with the in-laws and cousins. (Last year was Daniel Kahneman's (Princeton) Thinking, Fast and Slow – and yes, my wife’s side of the family makes fun of my beach reading material).  Easterly is an author I have wanted to read for a while now, and I still need to read some of his earlier books. 

Easterly

More after the break.

Continue reading

June 27, 2014 in Books, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Is corporate compliance being privatized?

I always enjoy reading Bryan Cave partner Scott Killingsworth's comments in various LinkedIn groups. In addition to practicing law, he’s a contributing editor to a treatise on the duties of board members. He’s just published a short but thorough essay on "The Privatization of Compliance." It reminds me of some of the comments that Dean Colin Scott made at Law and Society about tools of private transnational regulation, which include self-regulation, contracts, consumers, industry initiatives, corporate social responsibility programs and meta-regulators. Killingsworth’s abstract is below.

Corporate Compliance is becoming privatized, and privatization is going viral. Achieving consistent legal compliance in today’s regulatory environment is a challenge severe enough to keep compliance officers awake at night and one at which even well-managed companies regularly fail. But besides coping with governmental oversight and legal enforcement, companies now face a growing array of both substantive and process-oriented compliance obligations imposed by trading partners and other private organizations, sometimes but not always instigated by the government. Embodied in contract clauses and codes of conduct for business partners, these obligations often go beyond mere compliance with law and address the methods by which compliance is assured. They create new compliance obligations and enforcement mechanisms and touch upon the structure, design, priorities, functions and administration of corporate ethics and compliance programs. And these obligations are contagious: increasingly accountable not only for their own compliance but also that of their supply chains, companies must seek corresponding contractual assurances upstream, causing a chain reaction of proliferating and sometimes inconsistent mandates. 

This essay examines the origins and the accelerating growth of the privatization of compliance requirements and oversight; highlights critical differences between compliance obligations imposed between private parties and those imposed by governmental actors; and evaluates the trend's benefits, drawbacks and likely direction. Particular attention is given to the use of supplier codes of conduct and contractual compliance mandates, often in combination; to the issue of contractual remedies for social, process-oriented, or vague obligations that may have little direct bearing on the object of the associated business transaction; to the proliferating trend of requiring business partners to "flow down" required conduct and compliance mechanisms to additional tiers within the supply chain; and to this trend's challenging implications for the corporate compliance function's role and its interaction with operations, procurement, and sales groups. Recommendations are made for achieving efficiencies and reducing system dysfunction by seeking a broad consensus on generally accepted principles for business-partner codes of conduct, compliance-related contract clauses, and remedies appropriate to each.

 

June 26, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Is a new SEC disclosure on the way?

Regular readers of this blog have seen several posts discussing the materiality of various SEC disclosures. See here and here for recent examples. I have been vocal about my objection to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires US issuers to disclose their use of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold deriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding nations, and describe the measures taken to conduct audits and due diligence of their supply chains. See this post and this law review article.

Last year SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated that she has concerns about the amount and types of disclosures that companies put forth and whether or not they truly assist investors in making informed decisions.  In fact, the agency is undergoing a review of corporate disclosures and has recently announced that rather than focusing on disclosure “overload” the agency wants to look at “effectiveness,” duplication, and “holes in the regulatory regime where additional disclosure may be good for investors.”

I’m glad that the SEC is looking at these issues and I urge lawmakers to consider this SEC focus when drafting additional disclosure regulation. One possible test case is the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2014 (H.R. 4842) by Representative Carolyn Maloney, which would require companies with over $100 million in gross revenues to publicly disclose the measures they take to prevent human trafficking, slavery and child labor in their supply chains as part of their annual reports.

The sentiment behind Representative Maloney’s bill is similar to what drove the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule (without the extensive audit requirements) and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (CTSA). In her announcement she stated,  

“Every day, Americans purchase products tainted by forced labor and this bill is a first step to end these inhumane practices. By requiring companies with more than $100 million in worldwide receipts to be transparent about their supply chain policies, American consumers can learn what is being done to stop horrific and illegal labor practices. This bill doesn’t tell companies what to do, it simply asks them to tell us what steps they are already taking. This transparency will empower consumers with more information that could impact their purchasing decisions.”

While the Conflict Minerals and CTSA are “name and shame” laws, which aim to change corporate behavior through disclosure, the proposed federal bill has a twist. It requires the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of State and other appropriate Federal and international agencies, independent labor evaluators, and human rights groups, to develop an annual list of the top 100 companies complying with supply chain labor standards.

I don’t have an issue with the basic premise of the proposed federal law because human trafficking is such a serious problem that the American Bar Association, the Department of Labor, and others have developed resources for corporations to tackle the problem within their supply chains. A number of states have also enacted laws, and in fact Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, hardly the poster child for liberals, announced his own legislation this week (although it focuses on relief for victims).

Further, to the extent that companies are using the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to develop due diligence processes for their supply chains, this disclosure should not be difficult. In fact, the proposed bill specifically mentions the Guiding Principles. I don’t know how expensive the law will be to comply with, and I’m sure that there will be lobbying and tweaks if the bill gets out of the House. But If Congress wants to add this to the list of required corporate disclosures, legislators should monitor the SEC disclosure review carefully so that if the human trafficking bill passes, the agency’s implementing regulations appropriately convey legislative intent. 

I know that corporations  are interested in this issue because I spoke to a reporter yesterday who was prompted by recent articles and news reports to write about what boards should know about human trafficking in supply chains. As I told the reporter, although I applaud the initiatives I remain skeptical about whether these kinds of environmental, social and governance disclosures really affect consumer behavior and whether these are the best ways to protect the intended constituencies. That’s what I will be writing about this summer. 

 

June 19, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Starting in the Right Place: The Poverty Debate as a Regulatory Debate

A few weeks ago, Tim Carney wrote a piece in the Washington Examiner that is stuck in my mind. The piece titled Conservatives, big government and the duty to care for the poor discusses what Carney sees as a shift in the rhetoric conservatives are using in reference to the poor and other vulnerable populations.  Carney notes tha Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently referenced a “shared responsibility for the weak.”  Carney continues:

Step away from policy debates and think about that phrase. Do you have a responsibility to help the weak? Do you have a responsibility to feed the hungry? To aid the poor?

 I think I do. I think everyone does. The Catholic Church teaches us we do.

Conservatives sometimes shy away from this idea, though. One reason is a strong (and overblown) distaste to "helping the lazy." Another reason is that conservatives fear it implies the Left’s answer: big federal programs.

But, in fact, you can grant that you have a duty to the poor and the weak, and then have a really good debate:

Is that duty individual, or some sort of a communal duty?

Does the government have the legitimate right to transfer wealth to satisfy that duty, or is it solely an individual responsibility to fulfill that duty.

If aiding the poor is a legitimate government role, at what level is the aid appropriately delivered — local, state, federal?

I really don't see this as a new debate, but I agree it is a shift from the poverty debate I have seen over the past decade or so. This shift, though, goes back (at least) to the debates of what I remember in the 1980s and early 1990s. The question then, as I recall my vigorous (sometimes informed) college and early career discussions, was not whether the poor needed help. The question was how best to provide that help.  (I'll note that even then, conservatives were likely to call me liberal, and liberals often called me conservative. Some things remain the same, I guess.)  

Carney frames the conversation appropriately, and asks the right questions because it starts with the right assumption: that helping the poor is required.  He notes: 

Then there’s plenty of very practical debates: Are federal programs inevitably too bloated and inflexible? Or alternatively, maybe only the federal government has the economies of scale (and ability to make its own money) needed to run a safety net, particularly in economic downturns.

So, what does this have to do with business law? Well, in part, if we agree there is a duty, we must talk about whose duty it is.  Is it individual? Is it a communal governmental duty? A communal non-governmental duty?  Is it a duty of all people, including corporate persons?  To what extent? 

Further, the role of government in protecting the weak extends beyond poverty programs. It applies to securities regulation, environmental regulation, and tax policy, all of which are directly, or at least very closely, related to business law.  In all of these cases, I think the question of the poverty debate carries through: how do we carry out, as Sen. McConnell put it, our “shared responsibility for the weak?”

The conversation that follows that question is a good one because it does not reduce all arguments to some version of "caveat emptor" or only the "government/market will fix it."  Instead, the questions can be, for example: Does less regulation increase risks to vulnerable parties or increase access to opportunities for such parties?  If the answer is both, as it often is, how do we balance those risks and opportunities?  

The market is often the best solution, but one still needs to explain why that's true, rather than blindly relying on some amorphous, all-knowing "market."  And as those of us who work closely with regulated industries know, we need to acknowledge that all markets have rules (public and/or private), and those rules impact how effective that market will be and for whom. As such, the poverty debate is also largely a regulatory debate.  In all cases, if we start in the right place, better policy is likely to follow.  

 

June 10, 2014 in Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shady Is Not A Sham: Respecting the Tax Avoidance LLC

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently denied the state's attempt to collect sales tax on the sale of an RV to a Montana LLC. Thomas v. Bridges, No. 2013-C-1855 (La. 2014).  The LLC was formed for the sole purpose of avoiding RV sales tax (saving the buyer as much as $47,000).  The state argued that the LLC veil should be pierced and the tax should be assessed to the LLC's sole member claiming fraud. The court disagreed, explaining that "taking actions to avoid sales tax does not constitute fraud. Although tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance is not." 

There were problems with the state's attempt from the outset.  First, the sale occurred  in Louisiana, but the RV was housed in Mississippi.  Even if the LLC were to be disregarded, Mississippi, it seems to me, would be the state that should be asserting the claim.  Second, the state attempted to collect from the LLC's member before ever trying to collect from the LLC.  Thus,  the veil-piercing claim was being used as a post hoc justification for the attempt to recover from the LLC's member and was not properly raised below.  

This "legal loophole" (which is redundant because if it's a loophole, it's legal and if not, it's fraud), can be fixed by legislation, as Justice Guidry concurred, 

While I concur in the majority analysis and result, I write additionally to encourage the legislature to revisit this area of the law on foreign limited liability corporations formed solely for the purpose of sales tax avoidance on purchases made in Louisiana. As the facts of this case suggest, the law may be susceptible to abuse.

 Justice Clark's concurrence goes a step further:

Because I see no actual violation of the letter of the law in this matter, I concur with the result reached by the majority. However, I am concerned that the spirit of the law is not being protected. The potential for abuse in allowing the creation of sham entities to avoid the payment of taxes has policy implications that are worthy of the legislature’s attention.

I agree with Justice Guidry, but I think Justice Clark goes too far. I just don't see this as a sham entity. It does seem a bit shady, I admit, but shady does not equal a sham.  The entity here is a tax avoidance vehicle, but the entity is real, and the entity was apparently properly formed.  There was no allegation that the entity was not real, not disclosed, or otherwise used to perpetrate fraud. There are other ways to try to ensure taxes are paid in a state where the RV is housed.  (As a side note, though, one should always be sure to make it very clear that one is signing for the entity and not in one's individual capacity.)

And like the competition for entity formation, states often compete for business in a variety of ways. Maine, for example, has long-term leasing for trailers, including 8-, 12-, 20- and 25-year terms, that latter of which requires registration of at least 30,000 trailers.  

Other states choose to charge annual personal property taxes on vehicles like my home state of West Virginia. Similarly, the State of Virginia assesses personal property tax on vehicles kept by non-residents in the state, as long as the tax is paid somewhere:

Any person domiciled in another state, whose motor vehicle is principally garaged or parked in this Commonwealth during the tax year, shall not be subject to a personal property tax on such vehicle upon a showing of sufficient evidence that such person has paid a personal property tax on the vehicle in the state in which he is domiciled.

Va. Code  § 58.1-3511.

It seems Montana is using entity law to make a few dollars on state LLC formations, but that the benefit will likely be short lived.  I would expect many states will respond to reduce the effectiveness of this behavior.  The more interesting response, though, would be if Montana were to pass an annual RV property tax on entities (not individuals) that own such vehicles.  Montana natural persons, of course, don't need entities to avoid RV sales tax, so the tax would only (or mostly) impact out-of-state individuals who would have to pay taxes for their Montana entity. Because these nonresidents can't vote in the state, it would be hard for these folks to raise too much of a ruckus. 

Whether it is Montana or the location the RV is stored, the loopholes may start to close quickly. That, though, is a cost of doing business, even if the only business the entity tries to conduct is tax avoidance. 

June 3, 2014 in Business Associations, Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Should business lawyers advise on moral issues too?

Last week I blogged about enterprise risk management,  lawyers, and their "obligations" to counsel clients about human rights risks based in part on statements by the American Bar Association and Marty Lipton of Wachtell, who have cited the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I posted the blog on a few LinkedIn groups and received some interesting responses from academics, in house counsel, consultants, and outside counsel, which leads me to believe that this is fertile ground for discussion. I have excerpted some of the comments below:

 “Corporations do have risk with respect to human rights violations, and this risk needs to be managed in a thoughtful manner that respects human dignity. I did wonder, though, whether you see any possible unintended consequences of asking attorneys to start advising on moral as well as legal rights?”

“I agree. Great post. Lawyers should always be ready to advise on both legal risks and what I call "propriety". If a lawyer cannot scan for both risks, then he or she is either incompetent or has integrity issues. Companies that choose to take advice from a lawyer who is incompetent or has integrity issues probably have integrity issues too. I'm not sure I would leave leadership on ERM as a whole in the hands of a lawyer, unless that person has very good risk credentials.”

“As a lawyer, and a casinos and  banks counselor, recently, due to a Constitution reform in Mexico, I have been more involved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the "Pacto de San Jose Costa Rica" (American Convention of HR) where you find out that the law in the best benefit of the citizen will be applicable, even over the Constitution. Of course that has an important impact over secondary laws and over many industries as well. So, you are absolutely right: "are we lawyers ready to be good counselors to our clients?". My personal thought is that we have to get involved in all those Human Rights laws and with the impact that they have with our country’s laws. That is where the world is going in the benefit of our species.”

“Exciting idea. I'm going to give a typical lawyer answer; it depends on the lawyer. This reflects what …. said above about competence. I would give a trifle more leeway for those that realize they need more research/education on the topic before advising on it.”

“I have a very strong opinion that the role of an in-house counsel or GC sitting on a Board or Exec. committee cannot be, and should not be, limited to pure legal matters, legal compliance and company legal risk, but rather need to play a key role on corporate business sustainability. Likewise, outside counselors should have this in the top of their agendas. Certainly this has never been the trend in Spain or in some EU countries, and involvement of senior executive legal counsel in corporate decisions relating CSR, Human Rights or similar issues that do have a clear impact on corporate ethics credentials and corporate integrity is now being slowly accepted and perceived as a great added value by the Boards. I am personally convinced that in the next years we will see an interesting evolution on this.”

I agree with the all of the comments, but particularly the last one. Here's ABA Rule 2.1 in it's entirety- 

Counselor Rule 2.1 Advisor 
"In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation." 

When I taught professional responsibility, Rule 2.1 typically led to heated discussions. During my stint as a compliance officer, though I often engaged in "moral" and ethical discussions. As for unintended consequences, as the first commenter points out, there could be many. People's "morals" may differ, just as companies have different "cultures." Companies with different cultures operating in countries with different cultures- now that's a whole other layer of complexity. Lawyers and/or compliance officers may not want to "rock the boat" with “moral” discussions and may be more comfortable sticking to black letter law. When it comes to human rights where some multinationals may be dealing with non-binding "soft law" or operate in countries where the binding law is not enforced, what "moral" yet practical advice should lawyers give to their clients on the ground?

These are topics that I plan to write about and that I enjoyed discussing with students in courses I have taught in the past on corporate governance, compliance and corporate social responsibility. Next week I will attend a conference at Columbia University on teaching business and human rights, and I am sure these issues will be front and center. Clearly, based on discussions on LinkedIn, they already are for many practicing lawyers.

 

May 8, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Are lawyers ready to counsel clients and boards on enterprise risk management and human rights?

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel on global human rights compliance and enterprise risk management with Mark Nordstrom of General Electric and John Sherman of Shift. The panel was part of a conference entitled New Challenges in Risk Management and Compliance at the UConn School of Law Insurance Law Center. 

I spoke about the lack of direct human rights obligations under international law for multinationals, the various voluntary initiatives such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO Tripartite Declaration, the UN Global Compact, ISO 26000, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the Global Reporting Initiative, and accusations of bluewashing. I also discussed Dodd-Frank 1502 (conflict minerals), sustainable stock exchange indices, ESG reporting, SEC proxy disclosure on risk management oversight, socially responsible investors, and the roles of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the International Integrated Reporting Council in spurring transparency and integrated reporting. 

Sherman focused on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and which contain three pillars, namely the state duty to protect people from human rights abuses by third parties, including business; business’ responsibility to respect human rights, which means avoid infringing on the rights of 
others and addressing negative impacts with which a business is involved; and the need for greater access to effective remedy for victims of corporate-related abuse, both judicial 
and non-judicial.

He pointed out that American Bar Association endorsed the Guiding Principles in 2011 concluding that under Model Rule 2.1 of the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer’s obligation to provide independent and candid legal advice includes the responsibility to go beyond the black letter of the law, and to advise the client on moral, economic, and social and political standards that can affect the lawyer’s advice. This includes the impact of the Guiding Principles when relevant. An advisory group to the Law Society for England and Wales has made even stronger recommendations. Sherman is chairing a working group of the International Bar Association that is developing guidance for bar associations around the world on the Guiding Principles. He observed that Marty Lipton of Wachtel Lipton, has strongly endorsed the Guiding Principles as a “balanced and prudent process for corporations to manage their human rights risks.” Firms such GE, Total, and Coca Cola have met to discuss how their in house counsel can implement the Guiding Principles. Interestingly, Nordtsrom from GE relayed a troubling example of a human rights dilemma in which one of their medical devices was used in China for sex selection purposes rather than for the life saving purposes for which it was intended.

A number of businesses around the world have adopted these voluntary Guiding Principles, but in 2013 Halliburton, McDonalds and Caterpillar faced shareholder proposals based on them. The Guiding Principles have influenced the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals legislation; the US regulations requiring companies investing more than $500,000 of new money in Myanmar to report on their human rights policies and due diligence; the European Commission's 2011 recommendation that all EU countries develop their own National Action Plans to implement the Guiding Principles; the European Union’s Parliament recent directive in April 2014 requiring close to 6,000 companies in the EU to disclose their environmental, social and human rights policies including their due diligence processes, outcomes, and principles risks; the proposed Canadian conflicts minerals legislation; ISO 26000; and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Although I now teach business associations and civil procedure, I used to teach a seminar in corporate governance, compliance and corporate social responsibility and found that my students really enjoyed the discussions on human rights and enterprise risk management. Some of the sessions I attended in Geneva on Business and Human Rights at the UN  in Decemeber were led by lawyers from around the world who were already advising large and small businesses about the Guiding Principles and how to respond to the numerous comply or explain regimes around the world that are asking about environmental, social and governance factors. 

Earlier this week, I sat in on a webinar on the role of the board in overseeing sustainability issues, including human rights, which I will write about next week. There isn’t enough time to address these kinds of issues in a traditional business associations course, but as the ABA and Marty Lipton pointed out, the time is coming for attorneys to counsel their clients on these risks. This means that we as business professors need to prepare our students for this new world. 

May 1, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Racism, Capitalism, and the NBA

Unless you have been under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the racially offensive (and morally repugnent) comments apparently made by Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, made about African-Americans, including Magic Johnson.  Just moments ago, the league announced how it would respond.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that an NBA investigation has concluded that Sterling was the voice reflecting hateful speech, views that are “deeply offensive and harmful.”  (Note that the investigation was done by the Wachtell Lipton firm.)   

Commissioner Silver apologized for Sterling’s comments and vowed action. The result: Effective immediately, Sterling is banned for life from games, practices, facilities, and player personnel decisions, and he is barred from executive meetings.  In addition, the maximum fine of $2.5 million is levied, which will for to charities selected jointly by the NBA and the player’s association.  Silver said he will do everything in his power to help force a sale of the team. 

Silver said, “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They have no place in the NBA.” Sterling said that a three-fourths vote of owners could force Donald Sterling to sell. He did not know how it would proceed, but Silver said he would encourage owners to force Sterling to sell, and the process will begin immediately. 

Last week, I posted about the need for open debate in the context of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s resignation, and the ability for people to have cordial discussions about different views, even if one thinks the other’s views are wrong.  In that post, I explained my view that rushing to fire people for expressing different political views might be in the power of a company, but that calling for someone’s ouster because they have different views is not productive. 

I still believe that, but I also think the NBA has acted appropriately here, and I hope the owners follow through to oust Sterling. As I explained in my post about Mozilla: 

Certainly, one can imagine a scenario where a CEO’s prior political or organizational giving would create problems for the organization.  For example, an environmental organization may not be comfortable with a CEO who had given money to a group fighting climate legislation. But, in that circumstance, the hiring body, and likely the CEO, would, or at least should, have known that support for climate change initiatives would be expected as part of the job.  Top employees often become the face of the organization, and that comes with job, but if a particular political view is deemed necessary for the job, it would help if the CEO knew it during the interview process. 

Unlike Eich’s situation, Sterling’s apparent statements indicate a level of animus that required a strong response. I am also certain that the NBA would have considered Sterling’s views on race to be a huge problem for the league and the team, at least if displayed publicly.  Despite a long list of Sterling’s past statements, there is little doubt Sterling knew that such statements, at least made publicly, would be damaging.  It's unfortunate that Sterling would decide that it’s the public part of the view that are the concern (and not the views themselves), but that’s a different issue.

Organizations like the NBA work in their own best interest, and the role of the NBA is to promote and perpetuate the NBA and its teams.  In taking (and hopefully sustaining) action against Sterling, they are doing that.  They also happen to be, in my view, responding morally and ethically, as well. (I’ll note that there are legitimate questions about whether the NBA should have acted a long time ago, but for the moment, I’ll stick with “better late than never.”)  If the NBA does not ultimately, and relatively quickly, eliminate Sterling from an ownership role, though the entire league will suffer. Frankly, if the league and its owners don’t follow through, they should suffer. 

The NBA is, in many ways, a snapshot of capitalism.  In the market, where consumers have full information, the market works. Now that Sterling’s views are out in public, I suspect all of the NBA owners understand just what that means.  I rather hope so. 

April 29, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Should the SEC have a conflict about the conflict minerals rule after the DC Circuit decision?

Last week the DC Circuit Court of Appeals generally upheld the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule but found that the law violated the First Amendment to the extent that it requires companies to report to the SEC and state on their websites that their products are not “DRC Conflict Free.” The case was remanded back to the district court on this issue.

As regular readers of the blog know I signed on to an amicus brief opposing the law as written  because of the potential for a boycott on the ground and the impact on the people of Congo, and not necessarily because it’s expensive for business (although I appreciate that argument as a former supply chain professional). I also don’t think it is having a measurable impact on the violence. In fact, because I work with an NGO that works with rape survivors and trains midwives and medical personnel in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, I get travel advisories from the State Department. Coinicidentally, I received one today as I was typing this post warning that “armed groups, bandits, and elements of the Congolese military [emphasis mine] remain security concerns in the eastern DRC….[they] are known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted… Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly disciplined security forces [I was detained by the UN] at numerous official and unofficial roadblocks and border crossings…Requests for bribes [which I experienced] is extremely common and security forces have occasionally injured or killed people who refused to pay.”

None of this surprises me. I commend the efforts of companies to clean up their supply chains and to cut off income sources to rebel groups who control some of the mines or brutally  insert themselves into the mineral trade. But what the State Department advisory makes clear (and what many people already know) is that the problem that the Dodd-Frank law is trying to solve is not something that can be cured through a “name and shame” corporate governance disclosure, especially one that may no longer have the “shame” factor of having companies brand themselves “not DRC Conflict Free.”

Earlier this week, Senator Ed Markey and eleven other members of Congress sent a letter urging SEC Chair Mary Jo White to avoid any delay in implementing the rule. The letter states in part “…the law we passed was simple. Congress said that any company registered in the United States which uses any of a small list of key minerals from the DRC or its neighbors has to disclose in its SEC filing the use of those minerals and what is being done, if anything, to mitigate sourcing from those perpetuating DRC's violence. Such transparency allows consumers and investors to know which companies source materials more responsibly in DRC and serves as a catalyst for industry to finally create clean supply chains out of Congo.”

The "law" may have been “simple,” but the implementation is not for a large number of companies. That’s probably why the EU has proposed a voluntary self-certification scheme focused on importers rather than manufacturers and sellers like Dodd-Frank.  That’s probably why a large number of companies are not ready to comply, according to a recent PwC survey of 700 companies

Chair White, who has made no secret of what she thinks of the SEC’s role in solving human rights crises, still has to reissue Dodd-Frank 1504, the resource extraction rule that was struck down after a court challenge. According to a Davis Polk report, as of April 1, 2014, a total of 280 Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirement deadlines have passed. Of these 280 passed deadlines, 45.7% have been missed and 54.3% have been met with finalized rules. The SEC has a lot of financial rule making to complete and should consider how to prioritize and retool the conflicts minerals rule using the agency's discretion and going beyond the fixes that may be required by future rulings on the First Amendment issue.

I will continue to monitor the future of this law. I am now on my way to a conference for businesspeople, lawyers, academics and students at UConn entitled New Challenges in Risk Management and Compliance. I will discuss regulatory issues related to global human rights and enterprise risk management on a panel with the human rights initiative leader for General Electric and the General Counsel for the Shift Project, who worked with John Ruggie on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I am excited to meet and learn from them both. The Guiding Principles and earlier iterations of Ruggie’s work greatly influenced both the US and EU conflict mwinerals laws.

Next week I will report back on some of the outcomes from the conference.

April 24, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Corporations and Governments Don't Actually Do Anything

They really don't. 

To be clear, this is not a post bashing corporations (or government). It's not really extolling the virtues of corporations, either. Instead, it's just to make the point that, notwithstanding Citizens United or Hobby Lobby and other cases of their ilk, the idea that corporations are people is still a legal fiction.  A useful and important one, but a fiction nonetheless.  

On April 11, Corey Booker posted the following on Facebook:

In awful years past, corporations polluted the Passaic river to the point that it ended the days where people could eat from it, swim in it, and use it as a thriving recreation source. Today we announced a massive initiative to clean the Passaic river and bring it back to life again. The tremendous clean up effort will create hundreds of jobs and slowly over time restore one of New Jersey's great rivers to its past strength and glory.

The river needs the clean-up, and I applaud the effort. Still, the reality is corporations did not pollute the Passaic River, at least not literally.  People working for the corporation did. It is agency law that allows a corporation to act in the first place, because the fictional corporate person needs a natural person to act.  (For a simple explanation, see here.) The corporation is liable for the harm caused by its agents. (And, in certain cases, the individuals would also be liable directly if their actions were, for example, illegal.)

Government doesn't really do anything, either.  The clean-up proposal that Booker was referencing is a $1.7 billion Superfund river remediation project that was proposed by the EPA.  Of course, government works through agents, too, and there are real people behind the proposal.  Real people, through concerted action between corporations and government will actually do the clean up, too.  

This is a point I have made before, but I think it's an important one.  We need to remember that people are at the root of all corporate and government actions.  This is important in two directions. First, for those criticizing a corporate or government action, it is critical for them to remember that there are people carrying out the action.  A corporation or a government may act in an inappropriate manner, but it is also likely that the person carrying out the action is doing so with the intent to do well in the capacity in which they were fired.

Second, for people working for corporations or governments it is equally critical that they recognize that the their employer doesn't carry out actions without their help.  That is, people who work for corporations or governments must recognize that they are carrying out the will of the entity they represent (and they should hold themselves responsible for doing do).  Perhaps it is their boss who gave them the order (also a natural person), or even the board of directors (a group of natural people), but the charge is in fact, if not legally, being given by natural people.   

Why does this matter?  When we vilify or exalt the action of entities (like corporations or governments) we disconnect ourselves from the realities of the world, or at least our responsibilities within it.  We become more susceptible to Groupthink in either direction.  We are able to shirk our responsibilities -- as employees, as agents, as lawyers, as voters, as shareholders, as people -- to make decisions the are conscious of the world around us.  In our daily lives and in our representative capacities, we all must make difficult decisions from time to time.

Sometimes, tough decisions require a cost-benefit analysis that means someone else will be worse off because of our decision.  It's hard, but it's what people do. Often, it's what we must do.  In doing so, though, it is essential that we hold ourselves and other people accountable as people for what we've done. Regardless of the rhetoric we often hear, the amalgamations of people who make up both governments and corporations have done some amazing and impressive things.  Both have also done some horrendous and outrageous things.  The people in charge, and the people who follow, are accountable in both circumstances. 

In this instance, I am making a conceptual argument, not a legal one.  There are legal regimes, sometimes effective, sometimes not, for holding both entities and their agents accountable for their actions (and rewarding them, where appropriate).  How we think about corporations and governments and each other, though, has a broader impact.  Without us -- all of us -- there are no corporations and there is no government.  If we remember that, our responses to challenges are more likely to be more targeted, more effective, and more reasonable.  Just because we don't always agree, doesn't mean we aren't all in this together.  Whether we like it or not, we are, and it's time we acted like it. 

April 15, 2014 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Joshua P. Fershee, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whistle While You Work

As regular readers of this blog may know, I sit on the Department of Labor's Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Labor, may not be the first agency that many people think of when it comes to protecting whistleblowers, but in fact the agency enforces almost two dozen laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's law on whistleblowers.  The Consumer Financial Protection Act was promulgated on July 21, 2010 to protect employees against retaliation by entities that offer or provide consumer financial products.

Today OSHA released its interim regulations for protecting CFPB whistleblowers.  The regulation defines a “covered person” as “any person that engages in offering or providing a consumer financial product or service.” A “covered employee” is “any individual performing tasks related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.” A “consumer financial product or service” includes, but is not limited to, a product or service offered to consumers for personal, family, or household purposes, such as residential mortgage lending and servicing, private student lending and servicing, payday lending, prepaid debit cards, consumer credit reporting, credit cards and related activities. The Consumer Financial Protection Act protects “covered employees” of “covered persons” from retaliation who report violations of the law to their employer, the CFPB, or any other federal, state, or local government authority or law enforcement agency. Employees are also protected from retaliation for testifying about violations, filing reports or refusing to violate the law.

Retaliation is broadly defined as firing or laying off, reducing pay or hours, reassigning, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, blacklisting, intimidating, and making threats. An employee or representative who believes that s/he has suffered retaliation must bring a claim within 180 days after the alleged retaliatory action. If OSHA finds that the complaint has merit, the agency will issue an order requiring the employer to put the employee back to work, pay lost wages, restore benefits, and provide other relief. Either party can request a full hearing before an ALJ of the Department of Labor. A final decision from an  ALJ may be appealed to the Department’s Administrative Review Board and an employee may also file a complaint in federal court if the Department of Labor does not issue a final decision within certain time limits.

Although the statute is part of Dodd-Frank, the CFPB whistleblowers don’t get the same monetary benefits as Dodd-Frank whistleblowers who go to the SEC. The SEC Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule allows the recovery of between 10-30% of any monetary award of more then $1million of any SEC enforcement action to those individuals who provide original information to the agency. The SEC announced that in 2013 it awarded $14,831,965.64 during its fiscal year to 4 whistleblowers based on 3,238 tips. The vast majority—more than $14 million went to a single individual.  The top three allegations involved corporate disclosures and financials (17.2%), offering fraud (17.1%) and manipulation (16.2%). 

Should there be such a disparity between those whistleblowers who protect consumers and those who protect investors? Maybe not, but studies consistently show that whistleblowers don’t report to government agencies for the money so perhaps the absence of a large financial reward won’t be a deterrence. Time will tell as to whether any of these whistleblower laws will prevent the next financial crisis. But at least those who work in the financial sector will have some protection.

 

 

 

April 3, 2014 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Do consumer boycotts matter to companies?

I wonder how many people are boycotting Hobby Lobby because of the company’s stance on the Affordable Health Care Act and contraception. Perhaps more people than ever are shopping there in support. Co-blogger Anne Tucker recounted the Supreme Court’s oral argument here in the latest of her detailed posts on the case. The newspapers and blogosphere have followed the issue for months, often engaging in heated debate. But what does the person walking into a Hobby Lobby know and how much do they care?

I spoke to reporter Noam Cohen from the New York Times earlier today about an app called Buycott, which allows consumers to research certain products by scanning a barcode. If they oppose the Koch Brothers or companies that lobbied against labels for genetically modified food or if they support companies with certain environmental or human rights practices, the app will provide the information to them in seconds based on their predetermined settings and the kinds of “campaigns” they have joined. Neither Hobby Lobby nor Conestoga Woods is listed in the app yet. 

Cohen wanted to know whether apps like Buycott and GoodGuide (which rates products and companies on a scale of 1-10 for their health, environmental and social impact) are part of a trend in which consumers “vote” on political issues with their purchasing power. In essence, he asked, has the marketplace, aided by social media, become a proxy for politics? I explained that while I love the fact that the apps can raise consumer awareness, there are a number of limitations. The person who downloads these apps is the person who already feels strongly enough about an issue to change their buying habits. These are the people who won’t eat chocolate or drink coffee unless it’s certified fair trade, who won’t shop in Wal-Mart because of the anti-union stance, and who sign the numerous change.org petitions that seek action on a variety of social and political topics. 

I had a number of comments for Cohen that delved deeper than the efficacy of the apps. The educated consumer can make informed choices and feel good about them but how does this affect corporate behavior? Although the research is inconsistent in some areas, most research shows that companies care about their reputations but the extent to which a boycott is effective depends on the amount of national media attention it gets; how good the company’s reputation was before the boycott (many firms with excellent reputations feel that they can be buffered by previous pro-social behavior and messaging); whether the issue is one-sided (child labor) or polarizing (gay marriage, Obamacare, climate change); how passionate the boycotters are; how easy it is to participate (is the product or service unique); and how the message is communicated. 

Many activists have done an excellent job of messaging. The SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulation made it through Congress through the efforts of NGOs that had been trying for years to end a complex, geopolitical crisis that has killed over 5 million people. They got consumers, social media and Hollywood actors talking about “blood on the mobile” or companies being complicit in rape and child slavery in Congo because when they changed the messaging they elicited the appropriate level of moral outrage. The conflict minerals “name and shame” law depends on consumers learning about which products are sourced from the Congo and surrounding countries and making purchasing decisions based on that information. Congress believes that this will solve an intractable human rights crisis. The European Union, which has a much stronger corporate social responsibility mandate for its member states has taken a different view. Although it will also rely on consumers to make informed choices, its draft recommendations on dealing with conflict minerals makes reporting voluntary, which has exposed the EU to criticism. As I have written here, here, here here and here, relying on consumers to address a human rights crisis will only work if it leads to significant boycotts by corporations, investors or governments or if it leads to legislation, and that legislation cannot harm the people it is intended to help.

So what do I think of apps like GoodGuide, BuyCott and 2ndVote (for more conservative causes)? I own some of them. But I also send letters to companies, vote regularly, call people in Congress and write on issues that inspire me. How many of the apps’ users go farther than the click or the scan?  Some researchers have used the word “slacktivists” to describe those who participate in political discussions through social media, online petitions and apps. The act of pressing the button makes the user feel good but has no larger societal impact. 

What about the vast majority of consumers? The single mother shopping for her children in a big-box retailer or in the fast food restaurant that has been targeted for its labor practices may not have the time, luxury or inclination to buy more “ethically sourced” products.  Moreover, studies show that consumers often overreport on their ethical purchasing and that price, convenience and costs typically win out. The apps’ developers may have more modest intentions than what I ascribe to them. If they can raise consumer awareness- admittedly for the self-selected people who buy the app in the first place- then that’s a good thing.  If the petitions or media attention lead to well-crafted legislation, that’s even better.

 

 

 

March 27, 2014 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine, Religion, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dirty Money? Universities and Their Donors

Last week The Atlantic ran an article entitled Dirty Money: From Rockefeller to Koch that detailed the controversy surrounding a $1 million dollar gift from the Charles Koch Foundation to Catholic University.  The article quoted a letter of protest that stated:

We are concerned that by accepting such a donation you send a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops.

Despite the controversy, it appears Catholic University will keep the gift. A few weeks ago, the Catholic University president and the business school dean collaborated in an article entitled Why We're Keeping a $1 Million Koch Gift in The Wall Street Journal.  The authors conclude:

We're grateful for the $1 million, and we're keeping it, because it would be an unhealthy precedent for a university to refuse support for valuable research because the money, somewhere back up the line, once belonged to a donor whose views on other subjects were unpopular within the academic community.

I have not seen anything further from the school on this issue since the cited WSJ article.

Many universities are facing financial challenges and are desperately looking for funds.  Last April, Catholic University announced a 20% budget cut due to falling revenue.  Schools could argue that they will put donated funds to good use, regardless of the source.  But are their limits on whose money universities should accept?  And if there are limits, how do we determine those limits?

To start, I think we should recognize that there are no perfect people, and schools looking for flawless donors should give up hope of finding any.  Further, I agree with the Catholic University president and business school dean that excluding donors merely because of their unpopular views sends the wrong message to our students and our community.  We should respect and expose our students to a variety of views, even views with which we disagree. 

Personally, I think schools should focus on two questions:

  1. Will the gift lead to improper influence?
  2. Does acceptance of the gift endorse unethical behavior?

Improper Influence.  We all have biases, but academics have the potential to be among the least biased voices in their communities.  Universities should be most focused on whether the gift will actually lead to improper influence, but might also be wise to consider if the gift will lead to even an appearance of improper influence.  Individual scholars have been accused of “shilling for Wall Street”.  Similarly, claims of improper influence levied against entire universities could be harmful as well.

Tying this to business law, In re Oracle Corp. Derivative Litigation, 824 A.2d 917 (Del.Ch.2003) Vice Chancellor Strine (now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court) recognized the judgment clouding potential of large donations.  Regarding two Stanford University professors who sat on an Oracle special litigation committee (“SLC”) VC Strine wrote:

And, for both Grundfest and Garcia-Molina, service on the SLC demanded that they consider whether an extremely generous and influential Stanford alumnus should be sued by Oracle for insider trading. Although they were not responsible for fundraising, as sophisticated professors they undoubtedly are aware of how important large contributors are to Stanford, and they share in the benefits that come from serving at a university with a rich endowment. A reasonable professor giving any thought to the matter would obviously consider the effect his decision might have on the University's relationship with Lucas.

Of course, anyone can levy a claim of improper influence, and schools (and individual professors) should be most concerned about reasonable and supported claims.  Schools can attempt to reduce reliance on any single donor by expanding their donor base.  Each school should also make donors and the public aware that the school's professors do not plan to push donors' agendas, but plan to stay intellectually honest, write about their areas with as little bias as possible, and expose their students to a range of views.   

Improper Endorsement. Universities should be places where students are inspired and encouraged to act ethically.  Taking funds from notorious, unethical figures could be taken, by students and the public, as endorsement of unethical behavior.  Improper endorsement of unethical behavior is less likely, in my opinion, if the donor publicly admits to his/her mistakes and is taking steps to make amends.  Improper endorsement is also less likely, or at least weaker, if naming rights are withheld.  For an earlier debate on the endorsement issue, see the controversy at UCLA Law School over the $10 million gift from Lowell Milken in 2011.  Professor Bainbridge added his thoughts here.  (I note, as Professor Bainbridge does, that only Lowell’s brother Michael was charged with a crime).   

In short, I do think there are some limits on the universe of acceptable university donors, but based on what I know about the Koch Brothers, I would not label them as "off-limits donors" (assuming they do and will respect academic freedom).   According to the cited WSJ article, 270 universities evidently agree and have accepted gifts from the Charles Koch Foundation. 

If others have thoughts to add, I would love to hear them in the comments or via e-email. 

March 14, 2014 in Current Affairs, Ethics, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (1)