Wednesday, November 9, 2011
The Justice Department has decided -- properly, I believe -- not to file criminal charges against former SEC general counsel David M. Becker for participating in SEC policymaking relating to the distribution of funds from the Madoff estate when he had a personal stake in the outcome, a matter we discussed over five weeks ago. See here. Although I believe Becker's failure to recuse himself on his own was an exercise in poor judgment, he did report the potential conflict to his ethics officer, who approved his participation, and SEC chairwoman Mary L. Schapiro, who apparently failed to question it. Hopefully, the SEC will not forget that errors in judgment should rarely, if ever, be actionable.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Here is the Reuters story. Nothing posted yet on PACER. WSJ Law Blog also has coverage. This will be a much tougher case than Rajaratnam was for the government to prove. This morning's WSJ has a decent background piece (subscription required) on the case.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
One would expect that the SEC, which brings actions against individuals or corporations based on their failure to disclose a material conflict of interest to the public, would be sensitive to conflicts of interest of its own employees. Nonetheless, as a report released last week by SEC Inspector General H. David Kotz reveals, former SEC general counsel David M. Becker participated significantly in decisions relating to the distribution of SIPC funds relating to the Bernard Madoff case although he had a significant personal financial interest in the decisions.
Becker and two brothers in 2004 inherited and in 2009 liquidated $2 million in Madoff investment funds, $1.5 million of which were purported profits from the original investment. Later in 2009, Becker was prominently involved in two substantial questions in which the SEC recommendations to the bankruptcy court, while not conclusive, would be expected to carry significant weight in the court, given the deference courts pay to administrative agency decisions.
One issue concerned what position the SEC would take as to what should be considered "net equity," the amount that customers can claim in a brokerage liquidation. That question was essentially the same as what should be considered the "net equity" figure in a "clawback" action by the bankruptcy trustee, a decision in which Becker had a significant potential personal monetary interest, even though he and his family had not yet been sued (they were later). Becker initially argued against the "money-in/money-out method" under which an investor could recover only the amount he invested and for the "last account statement method" under which an investor could recover the amount of the last - and fictitious - statement from Madoff. The "last account statement method" would obviously have been beneficial to Becker in that it would have protected him in a "clawback" action by the Madoff bankruptcy trustee for the $1.5 million he and his brothers had received in Madoff "profits."
After consideration, Becker concluded that the last account statement method was unsupportable. His position was in accord with that of the SEC, SIPC, the bankruptcy trustee, and ultimately the Second Circuit, In re Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, LLC, ___ F.3d ___ (2d Cir., August 16, 2011). Becker argued, however, contrary to the position of SIPC, for the "constant dollar approach" in which the recovery under the money-in/money-out method would be adjusted upward for inflation and lost real economic gain. Under this approach, the bankruptcy trustee's potential clawback recovery from the Beckers would have been reduced by $138,500.
It is apparent, as any law student who has taken an ethics course would realize, and as the Inspector General determined, that Becker had a conflict of interest in the resolution of these questions. Yet, the SEC's "ethics" officer, who reported to and was evaluated by Becker, saw no conflict. The ethics officer, revealing a narrow view of conflict of interest, and an apparent misunderstanding of relevant securities law, found no conflict in part because there was "no direct and predictable effect" between the SEC's position and the trustee's clawback decision.
SEC Chairwoman Mary L. Schapiro was aware, to some extent, of Becker's Madoff financial interest, but she did not suggest he recuse himself. She and Becker both contended before Congress last week that he had acted properly by reporting the conflict to her and others. That defense, however, is limited and misplaced.
Reporting a conflict - especially if only to underlings and colleagues - is not sufficient. Even public disclosure of Becker's personal interest - and it was not disclosed to the public, Congress, the courts, or four of the SEC's five commissioners - would not have cured the conflict. Becker simply should have recused himself and not have participated at all in decisions as to the formulation of SEC policy relating to recovery of Madoff assets.
Schapiro was no doubt swayed by her respect for Becker's legal ability and integrity. Becker, who has written that he did "not remember giving any consideration to how the various proposed outcomes would affect me," may well have believed that his personal interest would not affect his professional judgment. In any case, his decision not to recuse himself and Schapiro's at least implicit condonation of this decision, demonstrate that the agency which polices conflicts of interest in the marketplace fails to appreciate them when they occur in its own house.
The Inspector General referred this matter to DOJ for consideration for criminal prosecution. I do not suggest that Becker acted criminally with respect to 18 U.S.C. 208, the statute proscribing acts affecting a personal financial interest, or any other law. He may well have lacked whatever scienter is required under the law based on his reporting to others or other acts or circumstances. Not every improper act is criminal.
Friday, August 12, 2011
SEC's Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Regulations Take Effect Today. Corporate America Expects More FCPA Woes.
Politico has a story about it here. The new regs implement Section 21F of the Dodd-Frank Act, which authorizes the SEC to award 10 to 30 percent of the monetary sanctions it recovers in a given case to a qualified whistleblower. What seems to most annoy the business community about the implementing regs is the SEC's insistence that whistleblowers are under no obligation to make use of a company's internal complaint procedures before running to the SEC. But the regs do say that an employee who goes through internal company whistleblower protocols is eligible for a Dodd-Frank whistleblower award if his/her employer subsequently self-reports to the SEC, based on the whistleblower's complaint, and a recovery is had. Further, an employee has a 120-day grace period after whistleblowing to his/her company, within which to bring his/her complaint to the SEC. Finally, in determining the amount of a whistleblower reward, the SEC will consider whether the whistleblower made use of his/her internal company procedures. The new regs contain enhanced anti-retaliation provisions as well, which prohibit direct or indirect retaliation for making whistleblower complaints to the SEC and other government entities.
There is an inherent tension between the anti-retaliation provisions and the SEC's and DOJ's often-emphasized warnings to companies that they should have vigorous and authentic internal whistleblower procedures. What if a company's pre-existing compliance policy requires the prompt internal reporting of whistleblower complaints? Can a company punish an employee who ignores such a provision and goes straight to the SEC? What if the employee declines to internally report, even after going to the SEC, because he/she feels that the company procedure is a sham? My guess is that such punishments will occur and that they will be deemed to run afoul of the anti-retaliation provisions. The retaliatory response is an instinctiual, persistent, and virtually universal impulse. It is really hard to eradicate.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Last week was Family Week for insider trading actions. Two highly-publicized cases concerned the disclosure and misuse of inside information received from a close relative -- one a spouse, the other a parent.
Both cases implicate the question of whether disclosure of confidential information to a close relative should form the basis of a criminal or regulatory proceeding. While the law provides no safe haven from prosecution for unlawful disclosure to a spouse or child (although the marital privilege may provide some protection to a spouse), respect for family relations may in some cases militate against such a prosecution. Here, however, the facts and circumstances of each case – one justifying prosecution, the other working against it – seem to make that issue moot.
In one, SEC v. William A. Marovitz, 1:11-CV-05259 (N.D. Ill. August 3, 2011), the husband of former Playboy Enterprises CEO Christy Hefner agreed (with the usual non-admission and non-denial of wrongdoing) to pay approximately $170,000 to settle a civil action. The husband, William Marovitz, according to the SEC, traded and made profits on sales of Playboy stock based on information he received from his wife concerning, among other things, a sale of the company. According to the SEC, Hefner had talked with her husband about her concerns with his trading and had the company counsel also speak with him. The counsel sent Marovitz a memo warning of the "serious implications" of his trading Playboy shares and asked him to consult counsel before he did. According to the complaint, Marovitz never did.
Hefner was not charged. Not only was she uninvolved in his trading, she took precautions, however unsuccessful, to prevent her husband’s purported misuse of the information. Of course, she could have prevented any misappropriation of insider information by him by simply not disclosing it.
The settlement amount includes civil penalties. One wonders what, if any, additional penalties Hefner will inflict upon her husband for his apparent betrayal of marital trust.
In another case, U.S. v. H. Clayton Peterson, 11 Crim. 665 (S.D.N.Y.) (see also SEC v. H. Clayton Peterson, etc. al., 11-CV-5448 (S.D.N.Y.)), a father and son both pleaded guilty to criminal securities fraud and conspiracy violations in connection with providing, using, and disseminating inside information concerning the 2010 takeover of Mariner Energy in Denver by the Apache Corporation. H. Clayton Peterson, a Mariner director, pleaded guilty to tipping off his son, Drew Peterson, who traded for himself, clients and a friend for a $150,000 profit and tipped off another friend, reportedly Bo K. Brownstein, a hedge fund executive, who traded for his fund and relatives and friends for profits of more than $5 million.
Peterson Sr. apparently took an active role in the wrongdoing, not only on several occasions providing confidential information to his son, but also directing him on two occasions to purchase Mariner stock for his sister. His conduct, thus, was apparently far more culpable than Hefner’s.
Drew Peterson is reportedly cooperating against Brownstein and others, as, to the extent he can, most likely is his father. Often, the family that steals together squeals together.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Danielle Chiesi, the former beauty queen, hedge fund trader, and fount of inside information to Raj Rajaratnam, was sentenced last week to 30 months in prison. We had blogged about her earlier. (see here)
Ms. Chiesi, who had extracted information from lovers and passed it on to Rajaratnam, was described by United States Attorney Preet Bharara in interesting imagery as "the vital artery through which inside information flowed between captains of industry and billionaire hedge fund managers."
The 30-month sentence was three months greater than that imposed on her former lover and boss, Mark Kurland, whom she blamed for involving her in criminality. Ms. Chiesi had specifically asked for a sentence equal to or lesser than Mr. Kurland’s. The government sought a sentence within the advisory guideline range of 37 to 46 months.
Retaining her sense of style to the end, Ms.Chiesi wore an atypical outfit for a defendant about to be sentenced, a sleeveless pink dress and matching pumps. And, after the sentence, alluding to her early morning arrest, she told the FBI agents at the prosecution table that the next time they knocked on her door they should do it in the afternoon. I suspect that she’ll be up early for the next 30 months.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Thursday, June 9, 2011
The United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York has a Criminal Law Group. Wow. I never knew. SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami recently spoke to its members about questionable tactics routinely engaged in by white collar lawyers (and their clients) during SEC Enforcement Division proceedings. Khuzami's Speech is troubling as it reveals clearly unethical and potentially illegal behavior, including: improper signalling to witnesses regarding substantive testimonial responses, representation of multiple witnesses with clearly adverse interests, representation of multiple witnesses who adopt virtually identical and implausible explanations of events, witnesses who "don't recall" dozens of basic and uncontroverted facts documented in their own writings, scorched earth document production, suspect recantation of damaging testimony after deposition breaks, and window-dressing internal investigations that scapegoat mid-level employees. Khuzami laments these tactics and notes that they often backfire by increasing Enforcement Division skepticism of the entity or person under investigation and by damaging the future credibility of counsel who encourage such behavior. But employment of at least some of these brazen tactics should do more. The people and entities who engage in them should go straight to secondary, as they say at the border. If this had been done in Bernard Madoff's case, after he was caught red-handed lying during a regulatory examination, his fraud would have been uncovered years ago. The message from the SEC should be clear. You don't get to lie or obstruct justice during Enforcement Division investigations or SEC exams. Hat tip to Jonathan Hardt of Wilmer Hale for bringing this speech to my attention.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
As noted here by Sol Wisenberg, Raj Rajaratnam was found guilty on all counts. Many have been commenting on the case, see here, here, here, here, and here for example. Some predict that this decision will be the stepping stone for future insider trading cases (see here, here , and here) After all the government might say - the wiretaps seemed to work in this case, perhaps they can work in other insider trading cases.
Hopefully, the government will think this through rationally. The wiretaps were clearly questionable (see here) (Professor Dershowitz takes a different view here). It remains to be seen whether a higher court will find their use acceptable. If there are more prosecutions using these types of wires, and it turns out that a higher court finds them unacceptable - a lot of time and money will have been wasted by the government.
A second issue is with respect to what constitutes insider trading and when is the conduct illegal. The fuzzy nature of this question makes many of these prosecutions questionable. The question I always wonder is if the person knew that the conduct was illegal, would they have committed the act. If they knew that a heavy jail sentence would be following, would they engage in this activity. The concern here being that perhaps more time needs to be spent on making criminal offenses clearer and educating folks on what is legal and what is not.
(esp)(blogging from San Francisco)
Friday, May 6, 2011
Nathan Koppel, WSJ Blog, Sick Juror Deals Major Setback to Rajaratnam trial
San Francisco Chronicle (Bloomberg), Rajaratnam Jurors Listen to Chiesi Wiretaps in Insider Case
Thursday, May 5, 2011
20th Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing Guidelines - Sentencing Issues in Securities Cases
This was an extremely high-powered panel, with Hon. Frederic Block (E.D. N.Y.) serving as the moderator.
Giving background on securities fraud sentencing was Alexandra Walsh (Baker & Botts). She noted that the biggest driver is "loss" with as many as 30 points added, and with first offenders being eligible for extraordinary sentences. As long as "loss" has such a huge influence and as long as there are judges who will look at the circumstances - there will be disparity. She asked what will be the Commission's response - will they scale back these sentences? Judge Block noted how easy it is to get life for a securities fraud sentence.
Judge Block noted how Dura Pharmaceutical set the standard of "loss" in civil cases. Speaking about post- Dura, Hank Asbill (Jones Day) noted how the 5th Circuit looked at "loss" and how it was developed in civil cases. But the 9th Circuit in Berger took a different position as noted by Judge Block. They chose not to use the civil fraud standard. Hank Asbill showed a flaw here when he asked - how do you determine the harm to society? He noted how the court gave Berger himself a break. But other cases in the 9th Circuit may not be agreeing with Berger. As noted by Judge Block - "we are dealing with fuzzy stuff." Judge Block then mentioned the Dodd-Frank Act which seems to have language more like Berger, as opposed to Dura.
Michael Horowitz (Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, LLP) was asked whether the Sentencing Commission has to scratch Dura. It sounded like the Commission will address this issue this coming summer. But where should the Commission go - on one hand there is a view to raise the guidelines (tough on crime), yet another view is to think beyond incarceration. Judge Block questioned whether the Commission was giving judges real guidance here.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) person on this panel was Daniel Braun, Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of NY (starting of course with the typical DOJ disclaimer that he was not speaking for the dept.). He noted that with increased discretion you get broader differences in sentences. He spoke to the letter of Jonathan Wroblewski, Dir. of Policy and Legislation, DOJ. He stated that this letter was not focused on individualized cases but rather on the broad differences in sentences. (There had been criticism that the letter singled out some specific cases)
Michael Horowitz noted how in the Adelson sentencing, the judge (Judge Rakoff) specifically asked the AUSA if life was an appropriate sentence. Which of course the AUSA could not answer. (Background on Adelson - see here)
Judge Jed Rakoff, speaking next, noted that the guidelines don't capture - what kind of human being do you have in front of you. He said that bad guys who make serious mistakes deserve to rot in prison, but he felt different about good guys who make serious mistakes.
Hank Asbill looked at what should a defense attorney do - he looked at issues of change of venue (are you leaving a more favorable judge?). He mentioned the Pepper case (see background here) as to whether the court could consider post-arrest variances. Things that were banned from the guidelines, now come back into the game. The panel ended on a somewhat humorous note - with the telling about an Israeli study that showed that favorable sentences were after the judge had eaten.
Bottom line - this was an incredible lineup of speakers, an incredible panel - hats off again to Kevin Napper (Carlton Fields) for putting this one together.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Earlier this week we saw that Craig Drimal entered a plea to insider trading (see here). Today a second plea to insider trading comes out of the Manhattan US Attorneys Office. An FBI Press Release reports that Donald Langueuil is pleading guilty to insider trading. According to the most recent press release:
"Between 2006 and 2010, LONGUEUIL, along with [another], a former portfolio manager at two hedge funds, JASON PFLAUM, a former research analyst for [this other person], and NOAH FREEMAN, a research analyst at a hedge fund and then a portfolio manager at another fund, and their co-conspirators participated in a conspiracy to obtain nonpublic information ("Inside Information"), including detailed financial earnings, about numerous public companies. These companies included Marvell Technology Group, Ltd. ("Marvell"), NVIDIA Corporation ("NVIDIA"), Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation ("Fairchild"), Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. ("AMD"), Actel Corporation ("Actel"), and Cypress Semiconductor Corporation ("Cypress"). LONGUEUIL obtained Inside Information both from employees who worked at these and other public companies, as well as from independent research consultants who communicated with employees at public companies. Often, the defendant and/or his coconspirators used an "expert networking" firm to communicate with and pay their sources of Inside Information. In addition, although LONGUEUIL and his co-conspirators worked at separate hedge funds, they had regular conference calls during which they shared the Inside Information they learned with each other." (name omitted of individual who has pending charges)
So, what is insider trading? The definition may prove problematic and at some point the Court may provide better guidance. But for those facing charges it is difficult to risk a trial as the cost of being found guilty at trial presents huge consequences. But in the back of my mind I have to wonder if a clearer definition and an understanding that one who engaged in this conduct faced jail time, would have precluded this conduct. Are we using our resources wisely to prosecute those who can be educated not to engage in this conduct?
Monday, December 20, 2010
Guest Blogger - Michael Volkov (Mayer Brown)
The SEC announced that it has entered a non-prosecution agreement with Carter's Inc. under which the Atlanta-based company will not be charged with any violations of the federal securities laws relating to its Executive Vice President’s (Joseph M. Elle’s) alleged role in insider trading and financial fraud. The non-prosecution agreement reflects the first use of the SEC’s cooperation policy announced earlier this year which seeks to incentivize cooperation in SEC investigations.
In support of its decision, the SEC cited the relatively isolated nature of the unlawful conduct, Carter's prompt and complete self-reporting of the misconduct to the SEC, its exemplary and extensive cooperation in the investigation, including undertaking a thorough and comprehensive internal investigation, and Carter's extensive and substantial remedial actions.
According to the SEC's complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Elles allegedly conducted his scheme from 2004 to 2009 while serving as Carter's Executive Vice President of Sales. The SEC alleges that Elles fraudulently manipulated the dollar amount of discounts that Carter's granted to its largest wholesale customer — a large national department store — in order to induce that customer to purchase greater quantities of Carter's clothing for resale. Elles then allegedly concealed his misconduct by persuading the customer to defer subtracting the discounts from payments until later financial reporting periods. He allegedly created and signed false documents that misrepresented to Carter's accounting personnel the timing and amount of those discounts.
The SEC further alleges that Elles realized sizeable gains from insider trading in shares of Carter's common stock during the fraud. Between May 2005 and March 2009, Elles realized a profit before tax of approximately $4,739,862 from the exercises of options granted to him by Carter's and sales of the resulting shares. Each of these stock sales occurred prior to the company's initial disclosure relating to the fraud on Oct. 27, 2009, immediately after which the company's common stock share price dropped 23.8 percent.
After discovering Elles's actions and conducting its own internal investigation, Carter's was required to issue restated financial results for the affected periods.
Under the terms of the non-prosecution agreement, Carter's agreed to cooperate fully and truthfully in action filed against any further investigation conducted by the SEC staff as well as in the enforcement Elles.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Guest Blogger - Victor Vital
Much has been written about the new bounty-provisions in the Dodd-Frank bill passed this summer. SEC-regulated companies are bracing themselves for an uptick in enforcement actions stemming from whistle-blowers. Also legal commentators and the compliance community are very concerned about the new bounty provisions that they fear will incentivize whistle-blowers to bypass compliance programs that companies have spent considerable sums of money and effort creating, partly in response to government regulation.
Now enter WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is the topic de jour, with its market-moving impact demonstrated by Bank of America’s 3% stock decline in response to speculation that it is an imminent target of WikiLeaks. (see WSJ story - here). Of interest to readers of this blog is whether WikiLeaks will cause the SEC and the CFTC to become even more aggressive than they may have previously planned to be in encouraging whistle-blowers to come forward and in rewarding those whistle-blowers. Given the government’s great consternation at WikiLeaks’ disclosures, it seems natural that the government might step up its efforts to encourage whistle-blowers to disclose original information of corporate misconduct through government-sanctioned channels. Just something to ponder. Victor Vital is partner at Baker Botts L.L.P. whose practices focuses on white collar criminal defense and complext litigation matters.
Now enter WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is the topic de jour, with its market-moving impact demonstrated by Bank of America’s 3% stock decline in response to speculation that it is an imminent target of WikiLeaks. (see WSJ story - here). Of interest to readers of this blog is whether WikiLeaks will cause the SEC and the CFTC to become even more aggressive than they may have previously planned to be in encouraging whistle-blowers to come forward and in rewarding those whistle-blowers. Given the government’s great consternation at WikiLeaks’ disclosures, it seems natural that the government might step up its efforts to encourage whistle-blowers to disclose original information of corporate misconduct through government-sanctioned channels. Just something to ponder.
Victor Vital is partner at Baker Botts L.L.P. whose practices focuses on white collar criminal defense and complext litigation matters.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
The SEC has issued SEC Proposed Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Rules in order to implement Section 21F of the Exchange Act. Section 21F, entitled Securities Whistleblower Incentives and Protection, was enacted as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The SEC is seeking public comments on the proposed rules, which comments are due by December 17. Some commentators believe that the generous bounty provisions of Dodd-Frank will undermine the many corporate compliance programs put in place or strengthened in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Here is the Yves Benhamou Criminal Complaint, out of SDNY, alleging insider trading violations (under Rule 10b-5 and 15 U.S.C. Section 78ff) by a French doctor. Doctor Benhamou purportedly tipped off a hedge fund employee about negative results from the Albuferon clinical trial. The WSJ story, by Jenny Strasburg and Jean Eaglesham, is here. The SEC's civil complaint, via the WSJ, is here
Friday, October 15, 2010
The Securities Exchange Commission is reporting here that Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo will pay the SEC $22.5 million to settle SEC charges "that he and two other former Countrywide executives misled investors as the subprime mortgage crisis emerged. The settlement also permanently bars Mozilo from ever again serving as an officer or director of a publicly traded company." The SEC notice also states:
"Former Countrywide chief operating officer David Sambol agreed to a settlement in which he is liable for $5 million in disgorgement and a $520,000 penalty, and a three-year officer and director bar. Former chief financial officer Eric Sieracki agreed to pay a $130,000 penalty and a one-year bar from practicing before the Commission. In settling the SEC’s charges, the former executives neither admit nor deny the allegations against them."
Some may ask - what about a criminal action?
1. Just because a civil case is proceeding with a resolution doesn’t mean that a criminal case might not be forthcoming. When the civil and criminal case are ongoing at the same time we call them parallel proceedings. But it doesn’t always mean that they have to start at the same time. In some instances, the criminal case will proceed after the civil has been ongoing for some time.
2.White collar criminal cases take a long time to investigate - they are document driven cases and as such require expertise that one doesn’t find when investigating a simple burglary or robbery case.
3. Civil cases have a different standard of proof - a much lower standard than criminal cases which require that prosecutors prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a more difficult burden and prosecutors need to assess whether they have accomplished what is needed with a civil enforcement action or if a criminal prosecution is needed. They also need to assess whether there is any criminal activity to warrant a criminal action.
4. The government needs to also determine if any conduct violates the law - or were the decisions that were made business decisions that may be wrong -- but ones that do not meet a level of criminality.
5. Hopefully prosecutors will also consider how best to spend our tax dollars.
Addendum, Gretchen Morgenson, NYTimes, How Countrywide Covered the Cracks
Friday, October 1, 2010
NACDL's 6th Annual Defending the White Collar Case Seminar – “An SEC Makeover: Restructured, Refocused, and … Back in the Game?,” Friday, October 1, 2010
Moderator: Gerald B. Lefcourt
What a panel. Susan Brune kicked off the discussion with thoughts on whether the SEC’s new cooperation policy will work. In her view, Bob Khuzami, as the SEC enforcement chief, will have to figure out how to make the SEC a bit more like a federal prosecutor’s office. One of his new big weapons, however, gives her pause. The SEC’s new cooperation scheme differs from the federal prosecution process, and some of the differences will impact the SEC’s effectiveness. AUSAs, in her experience, have much more autonomy than SEC staff attorneys. While they have to get supervisory approval to grant immunity or decline prosecution, the front office rarely reverses a line Assistant’s recommendation. With the SEC, in contrast, you never know until the staff attorney completes a long, formal, and inscrutable process that ends with the Commission itself weighing in, and often with political factors at play. And even then you don’t know. The SEC’s practice of including lengthy recitations of alleged conduct in its Consent Orders—facts to which the defendant does not agree—risks inflaming the judge, inciting Article III activism, and prompting Courts to reject carefully crafted agreements. This contrasts markedly with a sentencing hearing with a 5K motion by a USAO, where the federal prosecutor stands with your client shoulder to shoulder.
Rich Strassberg took the baton at that point and addressed the pitfalls of representing a client who has exposure to both the SEC and DOJ. Most clients who work in the securities industry cannot, as a practical matter, assert their 5th Amendment right and also keep their jobs. Clients may feel compelled to give testimony and effectively provide both the SEC and DOJ a roadmap for their investigations. Rich also touched on the public’s clamor for enforcement action in the wake of the Commission’s failure to anticipate the perils from credit default swaps and derivatives. The SEC’s perceived need to respond to the public’s furor with immediate action presents huge risks to clients. Wall Street has moved way beyond the stock market. The SEC needs to take the time to understand new markets, in Rich’s view, and to reflect on how complex industry norms inform the issue of criminal intent. A rush to respond to perceived enforcement lapses will deprive market participants of the benefit of a fair investigation that reveals the true context in which market participants worked. In short, the SEC has to work hard not to act too slowly, or too quickly, but to strike the balance just right.
Pam Rogers Chepiga then took the audience on a tour of the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower provisions, the SEC’s prior rewards program--$159,000 paid out over 20 years—and the rulemaking process for the new rewards process on which the Commission will now embark. She then posed the following big questions for the audience: do securities fraud allegations lend themselves to whistleblower programs due to the heightened intent requirement that applies? Will the time and energy it takes to filter through leads drain agency resources from more important enforcement programs? Will the financial incentives undermine well thought out corporate compliance programs? And finally, how will defense attorneys counsel clients who have a choice between laying low and seeking a financial windfall?
Bob Khuzami attempted to address the concerns raised by the other panelists. Judicial scrutiny is what it is. The SEC, in his view, should be prepared to defend its charging decisions. While he doesn’t relish headlines, and is concerned a bit sometimes that judges don’t fully understand how a case evolved, he calmly accepts the scrutiny as part of the job.
Cooperation and whistleblowers offer fundamental intelligence that brings forward higher quality information sooner. The entire Commission supports these new initiatives and will not bog down approvals. They have already agreed on the basic parameters: wrongdoers won’t continue to work in industry; they also won’t keep the financial benefits they have wrought. As to interactions with DOJ, he expects better communication at an earlier stage between the two agencies.
Fear not, moreover. There will be no shortage of process; no rush to judgment under his watch. Bob also credited the talented and sector-focused divisions within the SEC; they all will weigh in with their expertise on cooperation agreements and whistleblower rewards.
The whistleblower program will not drain resources; it will serve as corollary to the SEC’s established office of market intelligence. The program will also not undercut the need to encourage employees to “report up” via their in-house compliance programs. The SEC will fashion financial incentives in a way that supports this valuable corporate compliance function, though Bob did not explain why (we will have to wait for the rules).
Eliot Spitzer then grabbed the microphone. Wall Street is rife with conflicts of interest, he noted. The SEC cannot and should not wait for information to come in. The Commission instead should anticipate. The recent financial collapse, in his view, reflects an intellectual failure by regulators. The solution? Smart people at the SEC should think about problems before the public suffers. Eliot cited mutual fund fees as a perfect example. We know that these fees—suggested to amount to billions of dollars each year--hurt the middle class. We have democratized investing through these funds; now the regulators have to make them transparent and fair.
No shortage of practical insight and forward looking thoughts from this group!
Monday, September 20, 2010
Take the FCPA, add in expansive new whistleblower protections, start employing the willful blindness doctrine with abandon, and presto! You've got a real growth industry on your hands.
The new whistleblower provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act should significantly increase federal civil and criminal fraud enforcement actions in the coming years. Whistleblowers will now be able to reap potentially huge monetary rewards for the timely reporting of corporate fraud to the SEC and CFTC, if recoveries of over a million dollars are made by those entities, the DOJ, or other regulators. Under Dodd-Frank, the pool of qualified whistleblowers has been enlarged and there is no requirement that whistleblowers file qui tam actions in order to be compensated for their information.
Expect to see exponential growth in the already burgeoning area of FCPA enforcement, fueled by new whistleblower activity. Recall that the FCPA is a creature of the securities fraud statutes, and is therefore within the SEC's purview.
All of this and more is detailed in my friend Michael E. Clark's excellent new article in the September issue of ABA Health eSource, Publicly Traded Health Care Entities at Risk from New SEC Whistleblower Incentives and Protections in Dodd-Frank Act. Clark is with Duane Morris's Houston office. As with all ABA publications, Mike's article may not be copied or disseminated, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system, without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
Thursday, July 22, 2010