Thursday, March 28, 2019
This Michael Avenatti extortion case is fascinating to me. I am not really sure why, other than it seems so absurd. You may recall Avenatti as the lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against President Trump. He is a big personality and known for being outlandish at times.
According to federal prosecutors, Avenatti tried to extort Nike for millions of dollars because he claimed to have evidence that Nike employees were illegally paying people to help recruit college basketball players. Apparently, Avenatti believed he would be able to get Nike to pay him millions of dollars in exchange for the evidence. Instead, he ended up with the FBI.
The New York Time reports:
According to people with knowledge of the cases, once Nike heard Mr. Avenatti’s claims, it acted to inform federal officials of the allegation that the company’s employees were paying players. The nature of the discussion with Mr. Avenatti raised the possibility that extortion was taking place.
That is, as soon as Nike was on notice of a potential problem right to the authorities. How very Allis-Chalmers of them. I am a fan of that old business judgment rule case, which state “it appears that directors are entitled to rely on the honesty and integrity of their subordinates until something occurs to put them on suspicion that something is wrong. If such occurs and goes unheeded, [only] then liability of the directors might well follow . . . “ Graham v. Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., 41 Del. Ch. 78, 85, 188 A.2d 125, 130 (1963). So, as soon as Nike was on notice of wrongdoing, they disclosed it to officials.
Nike took action to deal with the problem quickly, rather than acting like Caremark did years ago, when "there was an unconsidered failure of the board to act in circumstances in which due attention would, arguably, have prevented the loss [from fines resulting from bad employee behavior]." By taking action, Nike likely insulates the company (or at least mitigates the harm) it could face from alleged wrongdoing. Rather than engaging in a cover up (and potentially paying to hide the problem), the company acted proactively by disclosing the actions.
Was this Avenatti's first attempt at such a thing? It seems unlikely one would start with a company like Nike, but maybe the potential payoff seemed worth it. On the other hand, maybe such tactics have worked in other circumstances with smaller companies, so it seemed like a good idea.
Regardless, it seems like Nike handled this wisely. The company recognized the issue before it, and fairly quickly realized that any of the alleged bad behavior was already done. When such things happen, it is disappointing, to be sure, but it can't be undone. The only question then is, "how are you going to respond." For my money, going to the authorities was the right call, even though Nike had to know some bad press was going to follow.
Now, I recognize it is possible that Nike knew about the behavior and reported nothing until Avenatti showed up. It would be interesting to find out, and if so, the analysis of whether they should have reported earlier would be an interesting one. For example, would the company have faced more or less scrutiny had they reported on their own? Or did they inoculate themselves to some degree by waiting and having the alleged Nike behavior overshadowed by Avenatti's alleged acts? Tough questions that require the exercise of business judgment. Thank goodness there is a rule about that.