The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC. Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.
Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:
This is the third in a series of posts where we will explore critical elements of a successful compliance program. In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in an anti-corruption compliance program, in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program. The guidance offers companies a roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program. In this series, we will explore recent and past guidance on key compliance topics, as well as key takeaways for companies of all sizes.
Policies and Procedures are the cornerstone of a compliance program. While traditional sources of guidance, such as the DOJ and SEC FCPA Resource Guide and DPAs themselves, lay out the government’s fundamental expectations with regard to policies and procedures, the Fraud Section’s new guidance goes deeper, reflecting an approach that will assess not only the existence but also the design and integration of policies and procedures.
The most basic expectation with regard to policies and procedures is that companies will have a code of conduct prohibiting violations of the FCPA and the law’s foreign counterparts. Additionally, companies should have policies and procedures covering, among other things, gifts, travel & entertainment, expenses, political and charitable contributions, and payments to third parties. Finally, traditional sources of guidance make clear that companies should also have a set of finance and accounting internal controls reasonably designed to ensure the maintenance of fair and accurate books and records.
This is the first in a series of posts where we will explore critical elements of a successful compliance program. In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in an anti-corruption compliance program, in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program. The guidance offers companies a roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program. In this series, we will explore recent and past guidance on key compliance topics, as well as key takeaways for companies of all sizes.
A commitment from high-level management is typically the first compliance component discussed in government guidance and Deferred Prosecution Agreements. Commonly referred to as “Tone at the Top,” this critical concept has previously been described in vague, generic ways. See, for example, this excerpt from Attachment C of DOJ’s recent DPA with Embraer S.A., which is identical to language in many other agreements:
“The Company will ensure that its directors and senior management provide strong, explicit, and visible support and commitment to its corporate policy against violations of the anti-corruption laws and its compliance code.”
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the acting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has centralized authority to issue formal orders of investigation – a critical authority that triggers the ability of SEC staff attorneys to issue subpoenas. The move, which was not publicized by the SEC, would curb existing powers of the Commission’s enforcement staff.
Since 2009, the power to issue formal orders of investigation had been “sub-delegated” to about 20 senior attorneys within the SEC’s Enforcement Division. However, according to the Journal report, acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar ordered the authority to be centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement. READ MORE →
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.”
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.
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.
On August 4, 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance elaborating its view that the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply equally to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, as well as those who are retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The guidance reflects that there is a split among federal courts over whether Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions apply to internal as well as external reporting, and recognizes that the only circuit court to decide the issue to date, the Fifth Circuit, has taken a contrary position to that of the Commission in Rule 21F, the regulation the SEC adopted to implement the whistleblower legislation, holding that internal reports are not protected by Dodd-Frank. Whether internal reports qualify for Dodd-Frank coverage has important implications because, among other things, Dodd Frank provides enhanced recoveries (including two times back pay) and longer time frames (six years) for bringing a retaliation claim than would be available under the anti-retaliation provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
On July 17, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $3 million to a company insider who provided information that “helped the SEC crack a complex fraud.” This payout represents the third highest award under the SEC’s whistleblower program to date. The SEC has made two of the three highest payments to clients of the same law firm – Phillips & Cohen LLP. (The SEC paid roughly $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and nearly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower represented by Phillips & Cohen in September 2014.). This latest multi-million dollar payout suggests that the SEC’s whistleblower program is in full swing, and that legal representation of whistleblowers may be on the rise.
Last week the SEC announced an award of between $1.4 to $1.6 million to a whistleblower who provided information that assisted the SEC in an enforcement action. The enforcement action against the whistleblower’s company resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million. This marks the second award to a whistleblower with an internal audit or compliance function at a company. The first was back in August 2014, when the SEC awarded a whistleblower in internal auditing/compliance with over $300,000. Here, as with the prior award, the officer had a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure to the SEC was necessary to prevent imminent misconduct from causing substantial financial harm to the company or investors. In both cases, responsible management was made aware of the potential harm that could occur, yet failed to take steps to prevent it.