Some of the SEC’s enforcement targets are no longer in denial, or at least they won’t be if a recent policy shift at the regulator takes hold. In a widely-reported letter on June 17, 2013 and then again in public remarks the next day, SEC Chairperson Mary Jo White indicated that the Commission would step up efforts to secure actual admissions of guilt in some cases rather than relying on the far more typical no-admit/no-deny settlements which have the advantage of avoiding litigation but which have also left some judges, politicians, and the public flat.
The purported change comes at a time when the SEC is facing criticism from a number of circles for settling high-profile cases. Among the loudest critics of the SEC’s settlement policy has been U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who in November 2011 would not approve a $285 million settlement between the SEC and Citigroup in which Citigroup did not admit liability. As Judge Rakoff explained: “Here, the S.E.C.’s long-standing policy—hallowed by history, but not by reason—of allowing defendants to enter into Consent Judgments without admitting or denying the underlying allegations, deprives the Court of even the most minimal assurance that the substantive injunctive relief it is being asked to impose has any basis in fact.”
Apparently, the SEC was listening to Judge Rakoff and others, but the consequences of this policy shift are unclear. For example, in her public remarks, Ms. White explained that “public accountability” cases were “quite important”—“and if you don’t get them, you litigate them.” Ms. White elaborated, adding that, “to some degree it turns on how much harm has been done to investors, [and] how egregious the fraud is.” As to any specific criteria the SEC would apply in seeking admissions of guilt, the regulator explained that such admissions might be appropriate in instances to safeguard against risks posed by the defendant to the investing public or where the defendant obstructed the SEC’s investigative process. In addition, two recent nominees to the SEC, Kara M. Stein and Michael Piwowar, stated during their confirmation hearings that they supported the policy shift.
For companies and their directors and officers, Ms. White’s comments are too vague to be of much comfort, particularly where such admissions could be admissible in subsequent class action litigation. Settlements with the SEC are always a two-way street involving cost-benefit analysis on both sides. The regulator is often just as concerned about the expense of litigating a case and losing as the regulated, and the SEC and its targets will no doubt continue to make those calculations. This public stance could very well be more about optics than a marked shift in enforcement cases. In that regard, Ms. White added during her remarks that “the ‘no admit, no deny’ protocol . . . will remain for the majority of cases.”