Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Importance of the Business Judgment Rule

Bernard Sharfman, a prolific author on corporate governance, has written his fourth article on the business judgment rule. The piece provides a thought-provoking look at a subject that all business law professors teach. He also received feedback from Myron Steele, former Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and William Chandler III, former Chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery during the drafting process. I don’t think I will assign the article to my students, but I may take some of the insight when I get to this critical topic this semester. Sharfman has stated that he aims to change the way professors teach the BJR.

The abstract is below:

Anyone who has had the opportunity to teach corporate law understands how difficult it is to provide a compelling explanation of why the business judgment rule (Rule) is so important. To provide a better explanation of why this is so, this Article takes the approach that the Aronson formulation of the Rule is not the proper starting place. Instead, this Article begins by starting with a close read of two cases that initiated the application of the Rule under Delaware law, the Chancery and Supreme Court opinions in Bodell v. General Gas & Elec. By taking this approach, the following insights into the Rule were discovered that may not have been so readily apparent if the starting point was Aronson.

First, without the Rule, the raw power of equity could conceivably require all challenged Board decisions to undergo an entire fairness review. The Rule is the tool used by a court to restrain itself from implementing such a review. This is the most important function of the Rule. Second, as a result of equity needing to be restrained, there is no room in the Rule formulation for fairness; fairness and fiduciary duties must be mutually exclusive. Third, there are three policy drivers that underlie the use of the Rule. Protecting the Board’s statutory authority to run the company without the fear of its members being held liable for honest mistakes of judgment; respect for the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements which almost always grants extensive authority to the Board to make decisions on behalf of the corporation; and the recognition by the courts that they are not business experts, making deference to Board authority a necessity. Fourth, the Rule is an abstention doctrine not just in terms of precluding duty of care claims, but also by requiring the courts to abstain from an entire fairness review if there is no evidence of a breach in fiduciary duties or taint surrounding a Board decision. Fifth, stockholder wealth maximization (SWM) is the legal obligation of the Board and the Rule serves to support that purpose. The requirement of SWM enters into corporate law through a Board’s fiduciary duties as applied under the Rule, not statutory law. In essence, SWM is an equitable concept.

 

 

January 19, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Controlling Corruption: Possibilities, Practical Suggestions & Best Practices

On Friday, I will present as part of the American Society of International Law’s two-day conference entitled Controlling Corruption: Possibilities, Practical Suggestions & Best Practices. The ASIL Conference is co-sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration, the Business Ethics Program of the University of Miami School of Business Administration, UM Ethics Programs & the Arsht Initiatives, the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Bentley University, and University of Richmond School of Law.

I am particularly excited for this conference because it brings law, business, and ethics professors together with practitioners from around the world. My panel includes:

Marcia Narine Weldon, St. Thomas University School of Law, “The Conflicted Gatekeeper: The Changing Role of In-House Counsel and Compliance Officers in the Age of Whistle Blowing and Anticorruption Compliance”

Todd Haugh, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University, “The Ethics of Intercorporate Behavioral Ethics”

Shirleen Chin, Institute for Environmental Security, Netherlands, “Reducing the Size of the Loopholes Caused by the Veil of Incorporation May lead to Better Transparency”

Edwin Broecker, Quarles &Brady LLP, Indiana,& Fernanda Beraldi Cummins, Inc, Indiana, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Possible Unintended Consequences of Enforcing Supply Chain Transparency”

Stuart Deming, Deming PLLC, Michigan, “Internal Controls and Compliance Programs”

John W. Fanning, Kroll Compliance, “Lessons from ‘Sully’: Parallels of Flight 1549 and the Path to Compliance and Organizational Excellence”

I will discuss some of the same themes that I blogged about here last July related to how the Department of Justice Yates Memo (requiring companies to turn over culpable individuals in order to get cooperation credit) and to a lesser extent the SEC Dodd-Frank Whistleblower program may alter the delicate balance of trust in the attorney-client relationship. Additionally, I will address how President-elect Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton may change the SEC’s FCPA enforcement priorities from pursuing companies to pursuing individuals, and how that will change corporate investigations. If you’re in Miami on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th, please consider attending the conference.

January 13, 2017 in Behavioral Economics, Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Can Sustainability Issues Ever Be Material to Investors? SASB Says Yes

As regular readers of this blog know, I am skeptical of many disclosure regimes, particularly those related to conflict minerals. I am, however, a fan of the Sustainability Accounting Standard Board’s (SASB's) efforts to streamline the disclosure process and provide industry-specific metrics that tie into accepted definitions of materiality.

Dr. Jean Rogers, the CEO and Founder of SASB, presented at the Association of American Law Schools yesterday with other panelists discussing the pros and cons of environmental, social, and governance disclosures. To prove SASB’s case that investors care about sustainability, Dr. Rogers noted that in 2016, sustainable investment strategies came into play in one out of every five dollars under professional management. She cited a number of key sustainability initiatives that investors considered including the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investments ($59 trillion AUM), the Carbon Disclosure Project ($95 trillion AUM), the International Corporate Governance Network ($26 trillion AUM), and the Investor Network on Climate Risk ($13 trillion AUM).

Despite this interest, SASB argues, investors lack information that equips them with an apples to apples comparison on material information related to sustainability. What might be material in the beverage industry such as water usage for example, may not be material in another industry.

Dr. Rogers cited a 2014 PwC study reporting that 89% of global institutional investors request sustainability information directly from companies, 67% are more likely to consider ESG information if it is based on a common framework or standard, and 50% are “very likely” to sponsor or co-sponsor a shareholder proposal.

Many who criticize the disclosure regime talk about disclosure overload and challenge the assumptions that investors care as much about sustainability as they care about earnings per share. On the flip side, companies experience what SASB acknowledges is “questionnaire fatigue.” GE for example, indicated that 75 people took months to answer 650 questionnaires with no value to the customers, shareholders, or the environment.

SASB is an independent 501(c)(3) with a who’s who of heavy hitters on the board, including Michael Bloomberg, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, the CEO of CalSTRS, and the former Chair of the FASB, among others. The organization first started this initiative in 2011 right after I left in-house life, and I remember thinking that this was an idea whose time has come. Over the years, SASB has worked to develop specific standards for 79 industries in 10 sectors to be used in Form 10-K and 20-F. Although it is a voluntary process, the goal is to allow investors to look at peers across an industry with standards that those industries have helped to develop.The SASB standards integrate into MD & As and risk factors without the requirement of any new regulation.

Some criticize SASB’s mission and fear more disclosure could lead to more lawsuits from investors or consumers. I don’t share this fear, but companies such as Nestle have been sued for fraud and other state law claims after disclosure required under the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act.

I’m a fan of SASB’s work so far. I hope that more organizations and advocacy groups continue to provide constructive feedback. Eventually, using the SASB methodology should become an industry standard that provides value to both investors and the company. Take a look at their 2016 State of Disclosure Report for more information and to find out how you can contribute to the effort.

January 5, 2017 in Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Why Lawyers Should Resolve to Blog in 2017

At the end of every semester I resolve to give less work to my students so that I don't have so much to grade. This upcoming semester I may actually keep that resolution, but I do plan to keep my blogging assignment. In each class, I provide an extra credit or required post or series of posts of between 200-500 words so that students can learn a fundamental legal skill—communicating clearly, correctly, and concisely.

If you are reading this post, then you are already a fan of legal blogs. Academics blog to get their ideas out quickly rather than waiting for the lengthy law review cycle to publicize their thoughts. Academics can also refine ideas they are incubating by blogging and receiving real time feedback from readers. Practicing lawyers blog (or should) for a slightly different reason. Blogging can enhance a lawyer’s reputation and visibility and ultimately lead to more business.

Yesterday, I met with an attorney who will speak to the students in my new course on Legal Issues for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and Small Businesses. I mentioned to him that I found his blog posts enlightening and that they filled a gap in my knowledge base. Although I practiced for almost twenty years before entering academia and had a wide range of responsibility as a deputy general counsel, I delegated a number of areas to my colleagues or outside counsel. That attorney is now part of a growing trend. In 2011, when I left practice, lawyers rarely blogged and few utilized social media. Now, many recognize that lawyers must read legal blogs to keep up on breaking developments relevant to their practice. However, most lawyers understandably complain that they do not have the time to get new clients, retain their existing clients, do the actual legal work, and also blog.

Leaving blogging to the wayside is a mistake, particularly for small or newer firms. A 2016 Pew Research Center Study revealed that only 20% of people get their news from newspapers yet almost 40% rely on social media, which often provides summaries of the news curated to the consumer’s interests. The potential client base’s changing appetite for instant information in a shorter format makes blogging almost a necessity for some lawyers. Indeed, consumers believe that hiring a new lawyer is so overwhelming that some clients are now crowdsourcing. But when they receive multiple “offers” to represent them, how do/should consumers choose? Perhaps they will pick the firm with a social media presence, including a blog that highlights the firm’s expertise.

I read several blogs a day. Admittedly, I have a much longer attention span than many of our students and the lay public. I also get paid to read. Nonetheless, I consider reading blogs an essential part of my work as an academic. In prepping for my new course, I have found posts on startups and entrepreneurship particularly helpful in providing legal information as well as insight into the mindset of entrepreneurs. If I were a busy founder running a new startup, I would likely try to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible online about certain topics prior to retaining a lawyer. Some lawyers, however, don’t really know how to speak to clients without talking down to them, much less write anything “short” and free of jargon. A lawyer/blogger who wrote in a way that I could understand, without all of the legalese, would be more likely to get my business.

Thus, even though I want to grade fewer papers, I also want my students to leave my class with the critical skill of communicating complex topics to the public in digestible chunks (and in line with state bar rules on social media). Over the years, I have advised students to volunteer to update or start a blog for their internship employers.  Many have told me that they enjoyed these projects and that their employers have found value in this work. This blogging practice also puts students in the position to start to blog after graduation.

I’ll end this post with a plug for my blogging colleagues who will attend AALS next week in San Francisco. I encourage you to attend some of the socioeconomic panels highlighted here. Please introduce yourself if you attend the panel next Wednesday morning at 9:50 on whistleblowers with me, Professor Bill Black of UMKC; Professor June Carbone of Minnesota; and Professor Ben Edwards of Barry. If you have an interest in the intersection between ethics and business, please swing by next Friday at 1:30 and see me and co-panelists Christopher Dillon from Gibson Dunn; Mina Kim, GC of Sunrun; Professor Eric Orts of Wharton; Professor Joseph Yockey of Iowa; Professor Brian Quinn of Boston College; Dean Gordon Smith of BYU; Professor Lori Johnson of UNLV; and Professor Anne Choike of Michigan.

If you have legal blogs you want to recommend and/or will be speaking at AALS and want to call attention to your session, feel free to comment below. Happy New Year and happy blogging.

December 30, 2016 in Conferences, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Weblogs, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What happens when a company is as powerful as a country?

This post is not about politics, although it does concern President-elect Trump's cabinet pick, ExxonMobil head, Rex Tillerson. I first learned about Tillerson during some research on business and human rights in the extractive industries in 2012. I read the excellent book, "Private Empire" by Pultizer-prize winner Steve Coll to get insight into what I believe is the most powerful company in the world.

Although Coll spent most of his time talking about Tillerson's predecessor, Lee Raymond, the book did a great job of describing the company's world view on climate change, litigation tactics, and diplomatic relations. Coll writes, “Exxon’s far flung interests were at times distinct from Washington’s.” The CEO “did not manage the corporation as a subordinate instrument of American foreign policy; his was a private empire.” Raymond even boasted, “I am not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” Indeed, the book describes how ExxonMobil navigated through Indonesian guerilla warfare, dealt with kleptocrats in Africa, and deftly negotiated with Vladmir Putin and Hugo Chavez. 

Before I read the book, I knew that big business was powerful--after all I used to work for a Fortune 500 company. But Coll's work described a company that was in some instances more influential to world leaders than the UN, the US State Department, or the World Bank. I don't know if Trump has read the book, but no doubt he knows about the reach of Tillerson's power. I won't comment about whether this pick is good for the country. I will say that this choice is not outrageous or even surprising given Trump's stated view of what he wants for America. The key will be for Tillerson, if he's confirmed, to use the skills he has honed working for ExxonMobil for the country. 

If you have time after grading for a really good read (it's a fast 700 pages), pick up the book. Coll's view on the Tillerson nomination is available here.

December 15, 2016 in Books, Corporations, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trump as a Teaching Tool for Business Associations

A friend of mine is considering teaching his constitutional law seminar based almost entirely on current and future decisions by the President-elect. I would love to take that class. I thought of that when I saw this article about Mr. Trump’s creative use of Delaware LLCs for real estate and aircraft. Here in South Florida, we have a number of very wealthy residents, and my Business Associations students could value from learning about this real-life entity selection/jurisdictional exercise. Alas, I probably can’t squeeze a whole course out of his business interests. However, I am sure that using some examples from the headlines related to Trump and many of his appointees for key regulatory agencies will help bring some of the material to life.

Happy Grading!

December 8, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Can "Doing Good" Pay Off for Carnival Cruise Line?

Happy Thanksgiving from the Dominican Republic. I'm blogging from the Fathom Adonia, Carnival's fledgling social impact cruise line. I've spent the past few days in Puerto Plata teaching English in schools and local communities. Other passengers worked on reforestation projects, built water filtration systems, installed concrete floors in homes, worked with women on cocoa farms, and learned how to recycle paper with local workers. Passengers can  also do typical excursions such as zip lining and snorkeling, or can lounge around in the $80 million dollar Amber Cove built up like a resort. But most people come on this cruise for the volunteer activities and don't expect frills (our bus got stuck in the mud and we needed pig farmers in a truck to help push us out on the way back from teaching English 75 minutes outside of town). Fathom has restaurants, a spa, dancing, bars, onboard activities such as wine and paint, extremely friendly staff, and enthusiastic, young "impact guides" but no Vegas-style shows and only carries approximately 700 passengers.

Carnival has banked on profiting from people's stated desire to do good in the world. Lots of surveys support this idea in theory. However, as regular readers of this blog know, I have written several posts skeptical of those who claim to care about corporate social responsibility, but choose to buy based on convenience, quality, and price. I have also repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that I am one of those people who selectively boycotts products and vendors. Although the idea of a social impact cruise line excited me, I wondered about whether It would succeed when I first heard of it because most people I know want to relax and not work on a vacation.

Unfortunately, it appears that Carnival's bet may not be paying off. Yesterday, the Miami Herald had an article discussing the future of the social impact product. Apparently, the Fathom, which also goes to Cuba, may stop doing these impact cruises, although Carnival promises that passengers will have "voluntourism" opportunities on its other cruise lines. Carnival also plans to continue its trips to Cuba on a different line starting next summer.

This change in direction, if true, does not surprise me. The Fathom trips to the Dominican Republic have never sold out, even at prices that are one third the price of the Cuba trip- my husband and I paid less than $1000 between the two of us for a seven day cruise, and were upgraded because they had capacity. We learned from one of Fathom's partners on the ground that there have been layoffs in Puerto Plata  because they don't have enough volunteers traveling on the ship. Fathom has even had to cancel some of the sailings altogether. 

Although the trips have not been popular with the masses, everyone that I have met on this trip has raved about their activities (particularly the English teaching) and the interactions with the warm Dominican people. Carnival may have hoped that word of mouth would suffice and that they wouldn't need heavy marketing. It's possible that Carnival believed all of the surveys of millennials who claim they want to change the world. Either way, it appears that there won't be a cruise line dedicated to social impact after next summer. That will be a huge loss for Puerto Plata and for those who want this kind of experience and are willing to pay to work with reputable, caring organizations.

I'm pulling for Fathom to survive in some form and for this idea to spread to other cruise lines. My husband and I both found that teaching English to 5th graders in a crowded classroom in a rain storm was the best Thanksgiving we have ever spent. When the students and volunteers spoke about the expeierence at the end of today's tutoring, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That may not be profitable for Carnival, but it was priceless for those of us who experienced it. 

November 24, 2016 in Corporations, CSR, Marcia Narine Weldon, Social Enterprise, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Still Worried About Teaching Business Associations . . . .

Thanks to all who responded to my query two weeks ago on teaching corporate fiduciary duties.  I continue to contemplate your suggestions as I recover from the cold that has consumed me now for a week.  Don't catch this version of the common cold!  It's a bear.

Anyway, the weekend after I published that post, I presented at a super symposium on shareholder rights at the University of Oklahoma College of Law--"Confronting New Market Realities: Implications for Stockholder Rights to Vote, Sell, and Sue," hosted by the Oklahoma Law Review.  (I spoke on rights to sell securities purchased in an offering exempt from registration under the CROWDFUND Act, Title III of the JOBS Act.)  Although it was not part of the formal agenda for the symposium, I got a chance to chat informally with a group of folks at and after the conference, including our host, Megan Shaner, along with Jessica Erickson, Gordon Smith, and Vice Chancellor Travis Laster from the Delaware Chancery Court (among others) about fiduciary duty complexity.  All, even the Vice Chancellor, had sympathy, offering ideas for simplifying corporate fiduciary duty law (as opposed to merely the teaching of it) that made sense.  And it seems that among those of us in the academy, there are many ways this material currently is taught in an introductory Business Associations/Organizations or Corporations course.

Of course, I am not the only one worried about teaching the law of business associations.  In extended discussions on the topic, co-blogger Marcia Narine raised a great question.  In general, she asked how one might teach business associations law to a relatively small class.  I understand that she in the past has taught 60-75 students in a four-credit-hour course.  That's similar to my situation at UT Law.  I typically teach up to 72 students (although I teach a three-credit-hour-course).  But in the future, Marcia may teach as few as 30 students in her four-credit-hour offering.  

She noted that she doesn't want to overburden the students or herself, but she wants to think about doing things differently.  She floated the idea of more peer grading.  I suggested in response that my oral midterm exam becomes more palatable in a smaller class.  I also noted that I would generally use more skills training in that environment and maybe even introduce current events or group presentations (2-3 students in each group) over the course of the semester.  But I also allowed as how I wouldn't try too many things all at once.  In fact, I noted that she might be better off just deepening what she already does that works.

What ideas do you have?  Do some of you teach a Business Associations class that includes as few as 30 students?  Do you use any specific pedagogies or tools that may be especially useful in a course like Business Associations/Organizations--a basic doctrinal upper-division course--when taught to a 30-student class?  Do you have any tricks of the trade you would feel comfortable offering?  If so, please post them in the comments.

In other Business Associations teaching news, I requested and have received permission to increase my Advanced Business Associations offering to three credit-hours from two.  This is great news.  I use this course to focus in more on publicly held and closely held firms, business combinations, derivative and securities litigation, and social enterprise and corporate social responsibility topics.  I ask the students to describe and assess the interaction among policy, theory, doctrine, and practice skills in corporate governance.  I like to have the students read full cases and law review articles, in addition to teaching text and excerpts.  (And I now plan to add Ann Lipton's new book chapter to the reading list this spring for the part of the course in which we cover the importance of bylaw amendments to contemporary corporate governance.  Great timing.)  

Bottom line?  The course, structured this way, just felt too densely packed with only two hours per week of teaching time.  So, my last two-credit-hour version of the course will be taught this spring.  Then, I will revamp the syllabus to add the extra credit-hour for 2018.  Interestingly, it was my students who came to me originally asking for the change, because they wanted to pause more over some of the material.  I did, too.  So, now I am not worried about this any more.  One thing to take off the ever-growing list of Business Associations teaching worries . . . .

 

November 21, 2016 in Business Associations, Joan Heminway, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eleven Corporate Governance and Compliance Questions for President-Elect Trump

I have been on hiatus for a few weeks, and had planned to post today about the compliance and corporate governance issues related to Wells Fargo. However, I have decided to delay posting on that topic in light of the unexpected election results and how it affects my research and work.

I am serving as a panelist and a moderator at the ABA's annual Labor and Employment meeting tomorrow. Our topic is Advising Clients in Whistleblower Investigations. In our discussions and emails prior to the conference, we never raised the election in part because, based on the polls, no one expected Donald Trump to win. Now, of course, we have to address this unexpected development in light of the President-elect's public statements that he plans to dismantle much of President Obama's legacy, including a number of his executive orders.

President-elect Trump's plan for his first 100 days includes, among other things: a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce though attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health); a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated; renegotiation or withdrawal from NAFTA; withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; canceling "every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama; and a number of rules related to lobbyists and special interests.

Plaintiffs' lawyers I have spoken to at this conference so far are pessimistic that standards will become even more pro-business and thus more difficult to bring cases. That's probably true. However,  I have the following broader business-law related questions:

  1. What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minumum, may not be out of the question.
    2. What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency?
    3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
    4. How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
    5. In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
    6. How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
    7. Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
    8. What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
    9. What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
    10. What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
    11. Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?

Of course, there are many more questions and I have no answers but I will be interested to see how future announcements affect the world financial markets, which as of the time of this writing appear to have calmed down.

November 10, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

AALS 2017 Annual Meeting: Overview of Socio-Economics Programs

 

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, January 3 – Saturday, January 7, 2017, in San Francisco.  Readers of this blog who may be interested in programs associated with the AALS Section on Socio-Economics & the Society of Socio-Economics should click on the following link for the complete relevant schedule: 

Download Socio-Economic AALS Participants + Descriptions 161018

Specifically, I'd like to highlight the following programs:

On Wednesday, Jan. 4:

9:50 - 10:50 AM Concurrent Sessions:

  1. The Future of Corporate Governance:
    How Do We Get From Here to Where We Need to Go?
    andre cummings (Indiana Tech)                            Steven Ramirez (Loyola - Chicago)
    Lynne Dallas (San Diego) - Co-Moderator        Janis Sarra (British Columbia)
    Kent Greenfield (Boston College)                        Faith Stevelman (New York)
    Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)                                 Kellye Testy (Dean, Washington)
    Kristin Johnson (Seton Hall)                                 Cheryl Wade (St. John’s ) Co-Moderator
    Lyman Johnson (Washington and Lee)
  2. Socio-Economics and Whistle-Blowers
    William Black (Missouri - KC)                                 Benjamin Edwards (Barry)
    June Carbone (Minnesota) - Moderator             Marcia Narine (St. Thomas)

1:45 - 2:45 PM Concurrent Sessions:

1. What is a Corporation?
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Moderator                             Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Tamara Belinfanti (New York)                                             Sabeel Rahman (Brooklyn)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)

On Thursday, Jan. 5:

3:30 - 5:15 pm:
Section Programs for New Law Teachers
Principles of Socio-Economics
in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service
Robert Ashford (Syracuse)                                                     Lynne Dallas (San Diego)
William Black (Missouri - Kansas City)                             Michael Malloy (McGeorge)
June Carbone (Minnesota)                                                     Stefan Padfield (Akron)

On Saturday, Jan. 7:

10:30 am - 12:15 pm:
Economics, Poverty, and Inclusive Capitalism
Robert Ashford (Syracuse)                                                     Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Paul Davidson (Founding Editor                                          Delos Putz (San Francisco)
Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics)                             Edward Rubin (Vanderbilt)
Richard Hattwick (Founding Editor,
Journal of Socio-Economics)

October 23, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Legal Issues for Startups and Small Businesses

Sadly, I am still in the midst of grading business associations and civil procedure midterms so I cannot finish my substantive post on Wells Fargo yet. WF is the gift that keeps on giving from a teaching perspective, though. Yesterday I showed students some of the litigation that has come out of the debacle to illustrate the difference between a direct and derivative suit (and to reinforce some civil procedure principles too).

Last night I took a break from grading to go to a Meetup called Ask a Start Up Lawyer. I hope to teach a 2-credit skills course on legal issues for startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs next semester and I have found that going to these sessions and listening to actual entrepreneurs ask their questions helpful. Last night's meetup was partcularly enlightening because a number of international entrepreneurs here in Miami for a State Department initiative attended. While in the past some of these sessions have focused on funding options and entity selection, last night's "students" mainly wanted to learn about intellectual property and international protection. Many of them come from countries with no copyright law, for example. Others come from countries where owning shares is a rarity. Although my course will focus on domestic entities, given the South Florida market in which I teach, I may need to add some of these comparative components to my already ambitious draft syllabus covering tax, employment, entity selection, governance, IP, business torts, basic securities regulation, social entrepreneurship, and exit strategies. 

If you have taught a course like this or have any ideas on materials to use, please comment below or send me a message at mnarine@stu.edu. 

October 21, 2016 in Intellectual Property, International Business, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Wells Fargo as a Teaching Tool on Corporate Governance

Today I used Wells Fargo as a teaching tool in Business Associations. Using this video from the end of September, I discussed the role of the independent directors, the New York Stock Exchange Listing Standards, the importance of the controversy over separate chair and CEO, 8Ks, and other governance principles. This video discussing ex-CEO Stumpf’s “retirement” allowed me to discuss the importance of succession planning, reputational issues, clawbacks and accountability, and potential SEC and DOJ investigations. This video lends itself nicely to a discussion of executive compensation. Finally, this video provides a preview for our discussion next week on whistleblowers, compliance, and the board’s Caremark duties.

Regular readers of this blog know that in my prior life I served as a deputy general counsel and compliance officer for a Fortune 500 Company. Next week when I am out from under all of the midterms I am grading, I will post a more substantive post on the Wells Fargo debacle. I have a lot to say and I imagine that there will be more fodder to come in the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out this related post by co-blogger Anne Tucker.

October 13, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

What Do Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and 220 Law Professors Have in Common?

Lately, I’ve been researching the twelve nation Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty (“TPP”) because I am looking at investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) in my work in progress proposing a model bilateral investment treaty between the U.S. and Cuba.

The TPP, which both Trump and Clinton oppose, has the support of U.S. business. Although President Obama has pushed the treaty as part of his legacy, just this morning, Vice-President Biden added his pessimistic views about its passage. More interestingly, over 220 law and economics academics, led by Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, have come out publicly to oppose TPP, stating:

ISDS grants foreign corporations and investors a special legal privilege: the right to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against a government for actions that allegedly violate loosely defined investor rights to seek damages from taxpayers for the corporation’s lost profits. Essentially, corporations and investors use ISDS to challenge government policies, actions, or decisions that they allege reduce the value of their investments... Through ISDS, the federal government gives foreign investors – and foreign investors alone – the ability to bypass th[e] robust, nuanced, and democratically responsive legal framework. Foreign investors are able to frame questions of domestic constitutional and administrative law as treaty claims, and take those claims to a panel of private international arbitrators, circumventing local, state or federal domestic administrative bodies and courts. Freed from fundamental rules of domestic procedural and substantive law that would have otherwise governed their lawsuits against the government, foreign corporations can succeed in lawsuits before ISDS tribunals even when domestic law would have clearly led to the rejection of those companies’ claims. Corporations are even able to re-litigate cases they have already lost in domestic courts. It is ISDS arbitrators, not domestic courts, who are ultimately able to determine the bounds of proper administrative, legislative, and judicial conduct… This system undermines the important roles of our domestic and democratic institutions, threatens domestic sovereignty, and weakens the rule of law.

Senator Warren, who also opposes TPP has argued, "“ISDS allows a small group of ultra-rich investors to extract billions of dollars from taxpayers while they undermine financial, environmental and public health rules across the world.”  I look forward to the upcoming debates to see whether either Trump, who has labeled the proposal the “rape of our country,”  or Clinton, who previously supported the deal, will cite the academics' letter as additional reason to oppose TPP. 

September 22, 2016 in Constitutional Law, Corporations, Current Affairs, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Is the Era of Conflict Minerals Disclosure Coming to an End?

Earlier this week the House Financial Services Committee voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, which I last wrote about here and in a law review article criticizing this kind of disclosure regime in general.

Under the proposed Financial Choice Act (with the catchy tagline of "Growth for All, Bailouts for None"), a number of Dodd-Frank provisions would go by the wayside, including conflict minerals because:

Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act imposes a number of overly burdensome disclosure requirements related to conflict minerals, extractive industries, and mine safety that bear no rational relationship to the SEC’s statutory mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and promote capital formation. The Financial CHOICE Act repeals those requirements. There is overwhelming evidence that Dodd-Frank’s conflict minerals disclosure requirement has done far more harm than good to its intended beneficiaries – the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Central African countries. SEC Chair Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee, has conceded the Commission is not the appropriate agency to carry out humanitarian policy. The provisions of Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act are a prime example of the increasing use of the federal securities laws as a cudgel to force public companies to disclose extraneous political, social, and environmental matters in their periodic filings.

The House report cites a number of scholars and others who raise some of the same issues that I addressed in an amicus brief when the case was litigated at the trial and appellate level years ago.

This weekend I am attending the Business and Human Rights Scholars Conference co-sponsored by the University of Washington School of Law, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the Rutgers Business School, the Rutgers Center for Corporate Law and Governance, and the Business and Human Rights Journal. I present on Cuba, human rights, and investor-state dispute resolution, but a number of papers concern conflict minerals and disclosure in general.

As I have argued in the past, I’m not sure that repeal is the answer. I do believe that the law should be re-examined and possibly reformed to ensure that the diligence and disclosure actually leads to tangible and sustained benefits for the Congolese people. In short, I want to see some evidence of linkages between this corporate governance disclosure and reductions in rape, violence, child slavery, pillaging of villages, and forced labor. I want to see proof that the individual ethical consumers who claim in surveys to care about human rights have actually changed their buying habits because of this name and shame campaign.

Although I do not agree with many of the proposals in the House report and I am not against all disclosure, I do not believe that the SEC is the appropriate agency to address these issues. The State Department and others can and should take the lead on the very serious security and justice reform issues that I witnessed firsthand in Goma and Bukavu  when I went to the DRC to research this law five years ago. These issues and the violence perpetrated by rebel groups, police, and the military persist.  I look forward to hearing how and if proponents of the conflict minerals rule address this report during the conference.

September 16, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 2, 2016

Glass Lewis on Corporate Governance

I previously wrote on the Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance released by high profile investors and corporate titans such as Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffet. Others, such as Steve Bainbridge have also weighed in. Now proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis has spoken, stating in part:

While the Principles may disappoint investors expecting a more comprehensive and robust approach similar to that found in the UK and other countries, there are a few areas where the principles promote forward-thinking stances. For example, the Principles criticize dual class voting structures and state that companies should consider specific sunset provisions based upon time or a triggering event to eventually eliminate dual class structures. This is notwithstanding the dual class structure at signatory Warren Buffet’s company Berkshire Hathaway…

There are several areas the Principles do not address, including key anti-takeover defenses such as poison pills, supermajority vote requirements and classified boards. The Principles generally address some issues such as special meeting rights and term/age limits for directors but do not recommend specific thresholds or tenure limits…

Despite the Principles’ relatively narrow scope and high level, we believe they contain enough substance to spark a dialogue inside boardrooms, which could lead to increased shareholder engagement from boards that traditionally have relied on executives and investor relations departments to lead those efforts. In our view, direct engagement between investors and boards leads to greater transparency and fosters mutual understanding of the company and its strategy, promoting long-term value creation. As a result, the Principles could have a salutary effect on companies, shareholders and the market.

Given the concern expressed by some in the business community and Congress about the "undue influence" of proxy advisory firms, the Glass Lewis statement is worth a read.

September 2, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Corporate Bystanders at the Rio Olympics

Greetings from SEALS in lovely Amelia Island. On Wednesday I presented on a proposed bilateral investment treaty between the US and Cuba, and tomorrow I am part of a discussion group on Sustainable Business. I will focus on the roles and responsibilities of corporate sponsors of the Rio Olympics. According to the official Olympics website, “[m]ore than just providing products and services for the event, [the sponsors] ensure that sport always comes first and that the whole world is inspired alongside us.”

Sponsors can spend up to $200 million for the privilege to inspire us. For many sponsors, the chance to have over a billion people watch their commercials and logos appear repeatedly over a period of a few weeks on television is worth the tens of millions of dollars. They often invest in slick YouTube campaigns that show their real or imagined connections to young athletes finally achieving their lifelong dream of bringing home the gold for their country. Apparently, 54% of consumers surveyed felt more positive about Nike after the company sponsored the Olympics based on how it chose to advertise. Many companies use these kinds of sponsorships as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Dow is the official “carbon” partner of the games.

As anyone who watches the news knows, the $12 billion Rio Olympics has been fraught with controversy. According to reports, the crime rate is soaring and the bay is so filthy that the athletes have been warned to keep their mouths closed during water events. Brazil was one of the ten largest economies in the world when it was awarded the games years ago and now is in free fall. As part of the deal to get the games, Brazil promised the IOC and its citizens gleaming new transportation systems, hospitals, and infrastructure but one in seven of Rio’s citizens still live in one of the 1,000 favelas and those have not improved at all. A number of people have actually lost their homes to make way for Olympic venues. Rio’s street children have asked the head of the IOC for assurances that their human rights will be respected.

Human Rights Watch prepared a report last year that outlines some key concerns about the human rights abuses that typically occur at mega sporting events. Although the Olympic Charter states at p. 14 that “the practice of sport is a human right,” the HRW report identified violations that typically occur at these kinds of events. Many have already been documented in Rio including: forced evictions without due process or compensation due to massive new infrastructure construction; environmental activism; threats, intimidation, and arrests of journalists; silencing of civil society and rights activists, and discrimination.What does any of this have to do with business? I have some questions about the role of business that I will explore tomorrow and in my research.

West Virginia Professor Jena Martin has written about the concept of the “corporate bystander.” She notes that, “TNCs often get involved in relationships with state actors who violate international human rights. TNCs then argue that they cannot be held accountable for the violations because they merely observed the underlying atrocities and did not participate in the acts that caused them.” The large corporate sponsors who tout their corporate social responsibility initiatives and who vehemently oppose human rights shareholder proposals because they already have a program in place will likely distance themselves from what is going on in Brazil. They are just sponsors after all. But is that an appropriate response? Should the IOC do more to require human rights safeguards? Should corporate sponsors conduct impact assessments or is their involvement too attenuated? Do the consumers who felt better about Nike after watching the Olympics commercials care about the street children in Brazil or the women who are displaced from their homes? Would they think twice about buying sneakers if they read some of the links in this blog? Does any of this move the share price in either direction?  What is the actual business case for balancing the corporate sponsorship with the human rights impact?

The head of the IOC has signed on to work with the UN on the Sustainable Development Goals--seventeen economic, environmental, social, and governance initiatives that the private sector, government, and civil society aim to achieve by 2030. How does that square with conducting the Olympics in locales with human rights and environmental violations? Should the IOC only hold the Olympics in host countries with "perfect" human rights records and what would that even look like?

I will be discussing these issues tomorrow and will explore it more firsthand when I head to Rio on Saturday. In the meantime, corporate sponsors may hope that the press coverage on Friday evening focuses on panoramic shots of Sugarloaf and Copacabana Beach and not the planned protests before the opening ceremonies.

August 4, 2016 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Games, Human Rights, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Is Good Corporate Governance Just a Matter of Common Sense?

Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:

Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;

■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;

■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;

■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;

■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and

■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.

I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.

July 21, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Caremark, Compliance, and Cooperation

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the potential unintended consequences of (1) Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards to compliance officers and in-house counsel and (2) the Department of Justice’s Yates Memo, which requires companies to turn over individuals (even before they have determined they are legally culpable) in order to get any cooperation credit from the government.

Today at the International Legal Ethics Conference, I spoke about the intersection of state ethics laws, common law fiduciary duties, SOX §307 and §806, and the potential erosion of the attorney-client relationship. I posed the following questions regarding lawyer/whistleblowers and the Yates Memo at the end of my talk:

  • How will this affect Upjohn warnings? (These are the corporate Miranda warnings and were hard enough for me to administer without me having to tell the employee that I might have to turn them over to the government after our conversation)
  • Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ?
  • Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ?
  • Will companies turn people over to the government before proper investigations are completed just to save the company?
  • Will executives cooperate in an investigation? Why should they?
  • What’s the intersection with the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (which Stephen Bainbridge has already criticized as "running amok")?
  • Will there be more claims/denials for D & O coverage?
  • Will individuals who cooperate get cooperation credit in their own cases?
  • Will employees turn on their superiors without proper investigation?
  • How will individuals/companies deal with parallel civil/criminal enforcement proceedings?
  • What about indemnification clauses in employment contracts?
  • Will there be more trials because there is little incentive for a corporation to plead guilty?
  • What about data privacy restrictions for multinationals who operate in EU?
  • How will this affect voluntary disclosure under the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, especially in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases?
  • What ‘s the impact on joint defense agreements?
  • As a lawyer for lawyers who want to be whistleblowers, can you ever advise them to take the chance of losing their license?

I didn’t have time to talk about the added complication of potential director liability under Caremark and its progeny. During my compliance officer days, I used Caremark’s name in vain to get more staff, budget, and board access so that I could train them on the basics on the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations. I explained to the Board that this line of cases required them to have some level of oversight over an effective compliance program. Among other things, Caremark required a program with “timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning the [company’s] compliance with law and its business performance.”

I, like other compliance officers, often reviewed/re-tooled our compliance program after another company had negotiated a deferred or nonprosecution agreement with the government. These DPAs had an appendix with everything that the offending company had to do to avoid prosecution. Rarely, if ever, did the DPA mention an individual wrongdoer, and that’s been the main criticism and likely the genesis of the Yates Memo.

Boards will now likely have to take more of a proactive leadership role in demanding investigations at an early stage rather than relying on the GC or compliance officer to inform them of what has already occurred. Boards may need to hire their own counsel to advise on them on this and/or require the general counsel to have outside counsel conduct internal investigations at the outset. This leads to other interesting questions. For example, what happens if executives retain their own counsel and refuse to participate in an investigation that the Board requests? Should the Board designate a special committee (similar to an SLC in the shareholder derivative context) to make sure that there is no taint in the investigation or recommendations? At what point will the investigation become a reportable event for a public company? Will individual board members themselves lawyer up?

I will definitely have a lot to write about this Fall. If you have any thoughts leave them below or email me at mnarine@stu.edu.

July 14, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Ethics, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Revising Regulation S-K

SEC disclosures are meant to provide material information to investors. As I hope all of my business associations students know, “information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in deciding how to vote or make an investment decision.”

Regulation S-K, the central repository for non-financial disclosure statements, has been in force without substantial revision for over thirty years. The SEC is taking comments until July 21st on on the rule however, it is not revising “other disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K, such as executive compensation and governance, or the required disclosures for foreign private issuers, business development companies, or other categories of registrants.” Specifically, as stated in its 341-page Comment Release, the SEC seeks input on:

  • whether, and if so, how specific disclosures are important or useful to making investment and voting decisions and whether more, less or different information might be needed;
  • whether, and if so how, we could revise our current requirements to enhance the information provided to investors while considering whether the action will promote efficiency, competition, and capital formation;
  • whether, and if so how, we could revise our requirements to enhance the protection of investors;
  • whether our current requirements appropriately balance the costs of disclosure with the benefits;
  • whether, and if so how, we could lower the cost to registrants of providing information to investors, including considerations such as advancements in technology and communications;
  • whether and if so, how we could increase the benefits to investors and facilitate investor access to disclosure by modernizing the methods used to present, aggregate and disseminate disclosure; and
  • any challenges of our current disclosure requirements and those that may result from possible regulatory responses explored in this release or suggested by commenters.

As of this evening, thirty comments had been submitted including from Wachtell Lipton, which cautions against “overdisclosure” and urges more flexible means of communicating with investors; the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which observes that 40% of 10-K disclosures on sustainability use boilerplate language and recommends a market standard for industry-specific disclosures (which SASB is developing); and the Pension Consulting Alliance, which agrees with SASB’s methodology and states that:

[our] clients increasingly request more ESG information related to their investments. Key PCA advisory services that are affected by ESG issues include:

  • Investment beliefs and investment policy development
  • Manager selection and monitoring
  • Portfolio-wide exposure to material ESG risks
  • Education and analysis on macro and micro issues
  • Proxy voting and engagement

This is an interesting time for people like me who study disclosures. Last week the SEC released its revised rule on Dodd-Frank §1504 that had to be re-written after court challenges. That rule requires an issuer “to disclose payments made to the U.S. federal government or a foreign government if the issuer engages in the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals and is required to file annual reports with the Commission under the Securities Exchange Act.” Representative Bill Huizenga, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, introduced an amendment to the FY2017 Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, H.R. 5485, to prohibit funding for enforcement for another governance disclosure--Dodd-Frank conflict minerals.

SEC Chair White has herself questioned the wisdom of the SEC requiring and monitoring certain disclosures, noting the potential for investor information overload. Nonetheless, she and the agency are committed to enforcement. Her fresh look at disclosures reflects a balanced approach. If you have some spare time this summer and think the SEC’s disclosure system needs improvement, now is the time to let the agency know.

July 7, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Have the DOJ and SEC Complicated the Attorney-Client Relationship?

This post concerns the rights and responsibilities of whistleblowers. I sit on the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. These views are solely my own.

Within a week of my last day as a Deputy General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for a Fortune 500 company and shortly before starting my VAP in academia, I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on the potential unintended consequences of the proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower law on compliance programs. I blogged here about my testimony and the rule, which allows whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC related to securities fraud or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to receive 10 to 30 percent of the amount of the recovery in any action in which the Commission levies sanctions in excess of $1 million dollars. During my testimony in 2011, I explained to some skeptical members of Congress that:

…the legislation as written has a loophole that could allow legal, compliance, audit, and other fiduciaries to collect the bounty although they are already professionally obligated to address these issues. While the whistleblower community believes that these fiduciaries are in the best position to report to the SEC on wrongdoing, as a former in house counsel and compliance officer, I believe that those with a fiduciary duty should be excluded and have an “up before out” requirement to inform the general counsel, compliance officer or board of the substantive allegation or any inadequacy in the compliance program before reporting externally.

Thankfully, the final rule does have some limitations, in part, I believe because of my testimony and the urgings of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the American Bar Association and others. In a section of the SEC press release on the program discussing unintended consequences released a few weeks after the testimony, the agency stated:

    However, in certain circumstances, compliance and internal audit personnel as well as public accountants could become     whistleblowers when:

  • The whistleblower believes disclosure may prevent substantial injury to the financial interest or property of the entity or investors.
  • The whistleblower believes that the entity is engaging in conduct that will impede an investigation.
  • At least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower reported the information to his or her supervisor or the entity’s audit committee, chief legal officer, chief compliance officer – or at least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower received the information, if the whistleblower received it under circumstances indicating that these people are already aware of the information.

At least two compliance officers or internal audit personnel have in fact received awards—one for $300,000 and another for $1,500,000. When I served on a panel a couple of years ago with Sean McKessy, Chief of the Office of the Whistleblower, he made it clear that he expected lawyers, auditors, and compliance officers to step forward and would not hesitate to award them.

Compliance officers have even more incentive to be diligent (or become whistleblowers) because of the DOJ Yates Memo, which requires companies to serve up a high ranking employee in order for the company to get cooperation credit in a criminal investigation. I blogged about my concerns about the Memo’s effect on the attorney-client relationship here, stating:

The Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?

The US Chamber of Commerce shares my concerns and issued a report last month that echoes the thoughts of a number of defense attorneys I know. I will be discussing these themes and the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower aspect at the International Legal Ethics Conference on July 14th at Fordham described below:

Current Trends in Prosecutorial Ethics and Regulation

Ellen Yaroshefsky, Cardozo School of Law (US) (Moderator); Tamara Lave, University of Miami Law School (US); Marcia Narine, St. Thomas University School of Law (US);Lawrence Hellman, Oklahoma City University School of Law (US); Lissa Griffin, Pace University Law School (US); Kellie Toole, Adelaide Law School (Australia); and Eric Fish,Yale Law School (US)

Nationally and internationally, prosecutors' offices face new, as well as ongoing, challenges and their exercise of discretion significantly affects individuals and entities. This panel will explore a wide range of issues confronting the modern prosecutor. This will include certain ethical obligations in handling cases, organizational responsibility for wrongful convictions, the impact of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in whistleblower cases, and the cultural shifts in prosecutors' offices.

To be clear, I believe that more corporate employees must go to jail to punish if not deter abuses. But I think that these mechanisms are the wrong way to accomplish that goal and may have a chilling effect on the internal investigations that are vital to rooting out wrongdoing. If you have any thoughts about these topics, please leave them below or email me at mnarine@stu.edu. My talk and eventual paper will also address the relationship between Sarbanes-Oxley, the state ethical rules, and the Catch-22 that in house counsel face because of the conflicting rules and the realities of modern day corporate life.

July 1, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)