Monday, February 6, 2012
In criticizing Judge Jed Rakoff's refusal to rubber-stamp its proposed settlement agreement with Citibank, the SEC has claimed that if it has to require companies to admit wrongdoing as a condition of settlement, there will be far fewer settlements and more trials. As a result, says the SEC, its resources would be so strained so that it would bring considerably fewer enforcement actions. The New York Times on Friday, February 3, cited unnamed "legal experts" as endorsing that view, saying that companies will be less likely to admit facts which could be used against them in shareholder lawsuits. See here.
There is a certain logic to that argument. Companies that have committed misconduct now do choose to pay the SEC rather than admit or reveal their wrongdoing to the public (and to class action lawyers). Companies that believe they have not committed misconduct sometimes decide it is less costly to pay the SEC than fight it. Few SEC cases go to trial. This settlement model works well for the SEC, which gets a check with less sweat, and for most defendants, which conceal their misconduct and/or save money.
But is that in the public good? More trials should lead to more public knowledge, promote more curative government action, and add an additional deterrent to corporate misconduct. Additionally, it should force the SEC to be more scrupulous in bringing marginal or questionable cases since they would more often be required to justify the charges in court.
I also question whether these "experts" are right in their expectation that there would be far more trials. I am not so sure that many corporate executives want public airings of the factual details of the company's wrongdoing. "Experts" predicted that the enactment of the Sentencing Guidelines would overwhelm the federal courts with trials since many more criminal defendants would exercise their right to trial because of the perceived (and actual) harshness and rigidity of the Guidelines upon a conviction. That simply has not happened. The percentage of cases settled by plea has remained relatively constant, if not increased, since the enactment of the Guidelines.