Wednesday, June 19, 2013
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has announced an end to the SEC's blanket "does not admit or deny" settlement agreement policy. In a select number of cases involving "widespread harm to investors" or "egregious intentional misconduct" the Commission will now insist on admissions of wrongdoing on the part of civil defendants who want to settle. The blanket policy was previously eroded, in January 2012, in cases where settling defendants had already pled guilty to related criminal charges. Yesterday's Reuters story is here. Todays Thomson Reuters News & Insight analysis is here.
I strongly suspect that the tangible impact of the policy shift will be minimal. Since almost no SEC civil defendants can afford to admit wrongdoing as a condition of settlement (except in cases where a guilty plea occurred or is anticipated), we can expect the instances in which the SEC will insist on such admissions to be extremely rare. And those very rare cases will result in trials.
But the intangible impact of annually insisting on admissions of wrongdoing in three or four cases may be greater over time. First, the trials, though few in number, should be well-covered by the media. Second, the SEC will regain some much needed respect for its toughness. Third, going to trial and airing the dirty laundry accumulated by malefactors of great wealth should have salutary educational and public policy benefits. Fourth, we may actually see some deterrent effect from all this, so that companies don't automatically view SEC settlements as a cost of doing business.
We will revisit this issue as the new policy is implemented.