The Whistle Blows Again: SEC Pays Second Largest Whistleblower Bounty Award

On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date.  Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013.  The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone.  These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions.  As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”

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Here’s a Tip: “Substantial and Important Contributions” to Pre-Existing SEC Investigations Can Pay Off For Whistleblowers

In a move evidencing the SEC’s continued commitment to its whistleblower program, the Commission announced on Friday that it has awarded a whistleblower over $3.5 million for providing information that did not lead to a new investigation, but rather only served to bolster an ongoing investigation.  This decision came after the SEC’s Claims Review Staff preliminarily determined that the SEC should deny the whistleblower claim because the information provided by the individual did not appear to “cause Enforcement staff to open the investigation or to inquire into different conduct, nor . . . to have significantly contributed to the success” of the action.  But after reviewing the whistleblower’s written response for reconsideration, in addition to factual information from staff in the Division of Enforcement, the Commission changed course, determining that the information indeed “significantly contributed” to the success of the SEC’s action, and approving the award.

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Even Whistleblowers Must Pay the Piper

In a heavily redacted decision issued on April 5, 2016, the SEC approved the claim of one whistleblower and denied the claim of another for providing information related to an unidentified enforcement action.  The SEC awarded $275,000 to the primary claimant (Claimant 1) but offset that amount by the monetary obligations due related to a separate Final Judgment.  Although the April 5 order was heavily redacted, the publicly available information confirms that the $275,000 award was based on a percentage of the monetary sanctions from both the SEC case and a related criminal action.  This is the first time an SEC order has required a tipster to spend whistleblower proceeds to settle a court-ordered debt.

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Highlights From SEC Speaks 2015

Securities and Exchange Commission leadership and staff members addressed the public on February 20-21 at the annual “SEC Speaks” conference in Washington, D.C.  Common themes among the numerous presentations included the Commission’s increasing use of data analytics, the Commission’s focus on gatekeepers such as accountants and attorneys, and the Commission’s still incomplete rulemakings mandated by both the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.

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SEC Gives Itself the Home Court Advantage in an Accounting Fraud / Internal Controls Action Against a Corporate CEO

An otherwise mundane SEC announcement on July 30, 2014 of an enforcement action charging a public company CEO and CFO with accounting fraud and internal controls violations is significant because the SEC is proceeding against the non-settling individual (the CEO) in an administrative proceeding rather than in federal court.  While not unprecedented, it has been, to date, exceedingly rare for the Commission to proceed against an unregulated entity or person administratively rather than in federal court.  This decision reflects the Commission’s and Enforcement Division’s recently, but frequently, stated intent to bring more administrative proceedings that previously would have been brought in federal court, now that the Commission has expanded remedies under Dodd-Frank Act.  The decision also raises significant due process issues.

The action itself charges Marc Sherman and Edward Cummings, CEO and former CFO, respectively, of QSGI Inc., a Florida-based computer equipment company, with violation of the antifraud and other provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.  According to the Commission’s press release, Sherman and Cummings claimed they had disclosed all significant deficiencies in internal controls over financial reporting to the company’s independent auditors, but in fact did not disclose or direct anyone else to disclose ongoing inventory and accounts receivable issues or improper acceleration of recognition and the resulting falsification of QSGI’s books and records.  The Commission also alleges that the executives signed SEC filings and Sarbanes-Oxley certifications that were rendered false and misleading due to the above issues.  Cummings entered into an administrative settlement with the SEC, agreeing to a cease and desist order, a $23,000 civil penalty, a 5-year officer and director bar, and a 5-year bar on appearing or practicing before the Commission as an accountant.  Sherman did not settle, and will instead litigate against the Division of Enforcement in an administrative proceeding. Read More

SEC Speaks, Cuban Tweets

The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission addressed the public on February 21-22 at the annual SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C.  The presentations covered an array of topics, but common themes included the Commission’s ongoing effort to carry out the rulemaking agenda set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, its role as an enforcement body post-financial crisis, its increasing utilization of technology, and its renewed focus on the conduct of gatekeepers.  In a surprise appearance, Dallas Mavericks owner and former insider trading defendant Mark Cuban attended the first day of the conference.  During his time at the conference, Mr. Cuban shared his thoughts on a number of the presentations via his Twitter account.

From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following: Read More

For Whom the Whistle Tolls in 2014

Momentum for the SEC’s Dodd Frank whistleblower program is growing, and 2014 can be expected to bring continued expansion of the program and the number and types of whistleblower actions initiated by the SEC.  The SEC’s annual report to Congress reported that 3,238 whistleblower tips were received in 2013, up almost 10% from 2012, and awards to whistleblowers who provide information to the SEC are increasing as more substantive tips are received.

An investigation by the SEC into a whistleblower tip can take several years to culminate in an enforcement action, so the last year likely saw just the beginning of a wave of enforcement actions.  Despite the fact that over 6,000 tips have been received through 2013, the SEC has issued only six separate awards to tipsters.  Those awards have ranged from $125,000 to a record $14 million, representing 10 to 30 percent of the overall funds recovered by the SEC in these whistleblower cases. Read More

Pack Your Bags: SEC and DOJ to Intensify the Spotlight on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

 

Comments made by Kara N. Brockmeyer, the Securities Exchange Commission’s chief of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) unit, and Charles E. Duross, deputy chief of the Department of Justice’s FCPA unit, at the recent International Conference on the FCPA suggest that both agencies are increasing their scrutiny of possible FCPA violations for the next year.  Both units have increased their resources for tackling investigations of possible FCPA violations.  Additionally, both agencies have increased awareness among other U.S. and international government agencies so that those agencies could also be on the lookout for possible FCPA violations.  Having strengthened their relationships with overseas regulators, both agencies are optimistic that they are in the position to bring significant FCPA cases in the following year.

According to Andrew Ceresney, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division, the SEC also expects that FCPA violations will be “increasingly fertile ground” for the Dodd-Frank whistle-blower program.  The SEC received 149 FCPA violation tips from whistle-blowers in just the last year and the SEC expects more enforcement cases to arise from whistle-blowers. Read More

Take Heart, Companies Can Win Whistleblower Cases: Two Key Victories Last Week in SOX and Dodd-Frank Cases

Two victories for employers last week in Dodd-Frank and SOX whistleblower cases may provide a basis for at least a sliver of optimism among employers and whistleblower defense lawyers hammered by a recent series of employee-favorable decisions under the two main federal statutes covering whistleblowing activity.

Banko v. Apple

In Banko v. Apple Inc., Case No. 3:13-cv-02977-RS, a Northern District of California judge dismissed a Dodd-Frank retaliation claim where the employee only made a complaint internally to management and never complained to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The court followed the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C. (see Orrick’s prior blog post on Asadi) and rejected a broader interpretation of the Act adopted by four district courts and the SEC that Dodd-Frank covers internal reporting protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) as well as reports to the SEC. Read More

How Much Latitude Do Directors Have In Setting Executive Compensation?

Executive compensation decisions are core functions of a board of directors and, absent unusual circumstances, are protected by the business judgment rule.  As Delaware courts have repeatedly recognized, the size and structure of executive compensation are inherently matters of business judgment, and so, appropriately, directors have broad discretion in their executive compensation decisions.  In light of the broad deference given to directors’ executive compensation decisions, courts rarely second-guess those decisions.  That is particularly so when the board or committee setting executive compensation retains and relies on the advice of an independent compensation consultant.

Nevertheless, despite the high hurdle to challenging compensation packages, shareholder plaintiffs continue to aggressively challenge executive compensation decisions, in particular at companies that have performed poorly and received negative or low say-on-pay advisory votes. Read More