Thursday, April 22, 2010
Since Sarbanes-Oxley gave the SEC the authority to distribute civil penalties to investors harmed by a corporation's fraud (the "Fair Fund" provision), the GAO has issued a number of reports and a series of recommendations on improving the collection and disbursement of these funds. It just issued another such report -- Securities and Exchange Commission: Information on Fair Fund Collections and Distributions. Here's its summary conclusion:
Since 2007, fewer Fair Funds have been established and the collection and distribution of Fair Funds have increased, but many Fair Funds continue to remain open and active for years. From 2002 through February 2010, $9.5 billion in Fair Funds were ordered, with the majority of this total ordered prior to May 2007. Since that date, only $521 million, or less than 6 percent, of total Fair Funds have been ordered. Of the $9.5 billion total Fair Funds ordered, $9.1 billion (96 percent) has been collected and $6.9 billion (76 percent) of the Funds collected has been distributed. In comparison, in 2007, only 21 percent of Fair Funds had been distributed. Although the percentage of Fair Funds distributed has increased, there are many Fair Funds that remain open and active for years. For example, our analysis of SEC data shows that of the 128 ongoing Fair Fund cases, over half have been ongoing for more than 4 years. SEC officials offered several reasons why Fair Funds remain open, including difficulties in obtaining investor information and legal objections and appeals that must be settled. To improve its management of Fair Fund cases, SEC proposed a performance metric of tracking the number of cases that have completed distribution within 2 years of the appointment of a Fund administrator. However, to date, SEC has not started collecting the data in a manner necessary to track this measure.
SEC has taken steps to increase efficiency and assess Fair Fund distribution, but a number of actions that are necessary to improve tracking of distribution related information are still pending. In response to our recommendations, SEC centralized the administration of collections and distributions under OCD and subsequently eliminated the dual reporting structure that initially existed in this new office. According to SEC, the creation of OCD has allowed the opportunity to build institutional knowledge and decreased inefficiencies by developing key administrative aspects of the program. SEC officials also told us that they have implemented other operational and administrative changes that are designed to improve Fair Fund distribution. For example, SEC established a working group to share information and to coordinate between functions on distribution plans and to identify problems that may slow distribution. However, SEC officials acknowledged that Fair Fund information and data tracking still need improvement. SEC officials said they have not implemented any major improvements to Fair Fund-related data management since 2007 and that additional improvements are needed in recording and monitoring of Fair Fund data. For instance, Fair Fund data are housed in several different databases that have not been reconciled and aggregate information on Fair Fund administrative expenses is unavailable. According to SEC officials, an extensive review of the Fair Fund program is under way, the findings of which may result in changes to workflow, procedures, and information systems. While SEC is taking steps to better capture, report, and manage the programmatic and financial impact of the collections and distribution process, it is too early to determine the impact and ultimate success of these efforts.