Friday, July 1, 2016
This post concerns the rights and responsibilities of whistleblowers. I sit on the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. These views are solely my own.
Within a week of my last day as a Deputy General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for a Fortune 500 company and shortly before starting my VAP in academia, I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on the potential unintended consequences of the proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower law on compliance programs. I blogged here about my testimony and the rule, which allows whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC related to securities fraud or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to receive 10 to 30 percent of the amount of the recovery in any action in which the Commission levies sanctions in excess of $1 million dollars. During my testimony in 2011, I explained to some skeptical members of Congress that:
…the legislation as written has a loophole that could allow legal, compliance, audit, and other fiduciaries to collect the bounty although they are already professionally obligated to address these issues. While the whistleblower community believes that these fiduciaries are in the best position to report to the SEC on wrongdoing, as a former in house counsel and compliance officer, I believe that those with a fiduciary duty should be excluded and have an “up before out” requirement to inform the general counsel, compliance officer or board of the substantive allegation or any inadequacy in the compliance program before reporting externally.
Thankfully, the final rule does have some limitations, in part, I believe because of my testimony and the urgings of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the American Bar Association and others. In a section of the SEC press release on the program discussing unintended consequences released a few weeks after the testimony, the agency stated:
However, in certain circumstances, compliance and internal audit personnel as well as public accountants could become whistleblowers when:
- The whistleblower believes disclosure may prevent substantial injury to the financial interest or property of the entity or investors.
- The whistleblower believes that the entity is engaging in conduct that will impede an investigation.
- At least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower reported the information to his or her supervisor or the entity’s audit committee, chief legal officer, chief compliance officer – or at least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower received the information, if the whistleblower received it under circumstances indicating that these people are already aware of the information.
At least two compliance officers or internal audit personnel have in fact received awards—one for $300,000 and another for $1,500,000. When I served on a panel a couple of years ago with Sean McKessy, Chief of the Office of the Whistleblower, he made it clear that he expected lawyers, auditors, and compliance officers to step forward and would not hesitate to award them.
Compliance officers have even more incentive to be diligent (or become whistleblowers) because of the DOJ Yates Memo, which requires companies to serve up a high ranking employee in order for the company to get cooperation credit in a criminal investigation. I blogged about my concerns about the Memo’s effect on the attorney-client relationship here, stating:
The Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?
The US Chamber of Commerce shares my concerns and issued a report last month that echoes the thoughts of a number of defense attorneys I know. I will be discussing these themes and the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower aspect at the International Legal Ethics Conference on July 14th at Fordham described below:
Current Trends in Prosecutorial Ethics and Regulation
Ellen Yaroshefsky, Cardozo School of Law (US) (Moderator); Tamara Lave, University of Miami Law School (US); Marcia Narine, St. Thomas University School of Law (US);Lawrence Hellman, Oklahoma City University School of Law (US); Lissa Griffin, Pace University Law School (US); Kellie Toole, Adelaide Law School (Australia); and Eric Fish,Yale Law School (US)
Nationally and internationally, prosecutors' offices face new, as well as ongoing, challenges and their exercise of discretion significantly affects individuals and entities. This panel will explore a wide range of issues confronting the modern prosecutor. This will include certain ethical obligations in handling cases, organizational responsibility for wrongful convictions, the impact of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in whistleblower cases, and the cultural shifts in prosecutors' offices.
To be clear, I believe that more corporate employees must go to jail to punish if not deter abuses. But I think that these mechanisms are the wrong way to accomplish that goal and may have a chilling effect on the internal investigations that are vital to rooting out wrongdoing. If you have any thoughts about these topics, please leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My talk and eventual paper will also address the relationship between Sarbanes-Oxley, the state ethical rules, and the Catch-22 that in house counsel face because of the conflicting rules and the realities of modern day corporate life.