Tuesday, September 22, 2015
You are the CEO, General Counsel, or Audit Committee of a big publicly traded company. Some whistleblower dimes the company out to the SEC and DOJ. It seems very likely that a crime has been committed. Class action lawsuits, qui tam complaints, and DOJ and SEC investigations are a foregone conclusion. What are you gonna do? Tell the SEC and DOJ to f... off? No, you are going to commence your own internal investigation and promise to cooperate with the government by sharing your Investigative Report's essential findings. And if the internal investigation reveals that some of your employees acted illegally, you will promise to serve them up to the DOJ. This is the reality in today's business and legal environment. A corporate entity owes no particular duty to an employee who commits fraud. Professor Podgor's complaint here and here that both the old (Filip) and new (Yates) DOJ policies encourage companies to throw their employees under the bus is certainly true. But to the companies involved it makes a lot of sense. Tell the DOJ that it's on its own and what will happen? You will still get hit with costly and onerous document requests and a federal criminal investigation that you cannot control. The publicity is awful and when it all hits the fan you can't even say that you are cooperating with DOJ. You've got a real mess and a pissed off prosecutor. To some extent, becoming a government quasi-agent is inevitable in this scenario.
The more interesting question to me is: "Who gets thrown under the bus?" Former SEC Enforcement Chief Robert Khuzami complained years ago that too many outside counsel with longstanding ties to a given corporation's leadership are willing to sacrifice mid-level employees to the government sledgehammer, letting the big boys go scot-free. That was true then. It's true now. Until the DOJ shows a willingness and ability to seriously investigate and prosecute a company's top leadership, when it is clearly called for, no memos, speeches, or other fanfare will mean diddly squat.
Yes, the occasional CEO finds himself/herself in the crosshairs and the occasional internal investigation results in a CEO resignation. But in the vast majority of cases it is middle management that gets slow roasted by both the company and an all-too-willing DOJ. Trust me. It happens. If the policies announced in the Yates Memo have any chance of changing this dynamic, so much the better.
Meanwhile, are there any concrete things the Department can do to change the situation? More on that in a future post.