If you’re the Securities and Exchange Commission, it’s tough to find a silver lining in Tuesday’s jury verdict for Brian Stoker, a onetime midlevel banker at Citigroup. Not only did the eight jurors in federal court in Manhattan determine that Stoker was not liable for misleading investors in a $1 billion collateralized debt obligation, they also offered a backhanded slap at the SEC. “This verdict should not deter the SEC from continuing to investigate the financial industry, to review current regulations, and modify existing regulations as necessary,” the jury said in a highly unusual note accompanying the verdict. For the SEC, which has been roundly criticized for its failure to bring civil charges against executives implicated in the financial crisis, the jury’s note has to read like one more reminder that the public is still waiting for corporate accountability.
After Citigroup shareholders voted against a board-approved $15 million pay package for CEO Vikram Pandit in April, there was a lot of talk about a shareholder spring, with speculation that shareholders at a lot of other companies would seize the opportunity of advisory say-on-pay votes to express irritation with unresponsive boards. But according to a study by Davis Polk & Wardwell that was published on Thursday at the Harvard Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation Forum, shareholders have been slower to storm the barricades than the Citi vote suggested. “The proxy season,” said the study’s lead author, Richard Sandler, “hasn’t been as exciting as people thought it might be.”
As Reuters reported Tuesday in a piece on Citigroup shareholders voting against the $15 million board-approved pay package for CEO Vikram Pandit, investors appear to be increasingly skeptical of lavish pay for executives of corporations with underperforming stock. With companies entering the second proxy season in which shareholders can offer an advisory say on executive pay, compensation and proxy experts are predicting more votes against compensation packages than we saw in 2011, when 45 companies got a thumbs-down from shareholder in say-on-pay votes.
When U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff rejected a $285 million settlement between Citigroup and the Securities and Exchange Commission last fall, he offered a stern rebuke to SEC lawyers who’d suggested his role was not to protect the public interest. “A court, while giving substantial deference to the views of an administrative body vested with authority over a particular area, must still exercise a modicum of independent judgment in determining whether the requested deployment of its injunctive powers will serve, or disserve, the public interest,” Rakoff wrote in his oft-quoted ruling. “Anything less would not only violate the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers but would undermine the independence that is the indispensible attribute of the federal judiciary.”
If there’s one federal jurist the Securities and Exchange Commission absolutely, positively did not want to see at the top of the docket in its $285 million settlement with Citigroup, it was Senior Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan federal court. Rakoff has been a festering sore for the agency since 2009, when he rejected a proposed $33 million settlement with Bank of America over failing to disclose bonus payments to Merrill Lynch executives in merger-related documents. In a March 2011 opinion in the Vitesse Semiconductor case, Rakoff took the agency to task for agreeing to settlements in which defendants neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. Then in July he claimed jurisdiction over the SEC’s case against former Goldman Sachs director Rajit Gupta, accusing the agency of forum shopping in filing an administrative action against Gupta. You can only imagine the teeth-gnashing at the SEC when Rakoff was assigned the Citi case. After the SEC tried to argue that Rakoff doesn’t have the power to consider the public interest in his evaluation of the proposed settlement, Monday’s rejection of the settlement was practically a foregone conclusion.
In 2010, when the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a case against Citigroup for misleading investors about the bank’s exposure to subprime mortgages, the SEC filed the proposed $75 million settlement in Washington, D.C., federal court. Judge Ellen Huvelle gave the agency some gruff about the deal, in which two individual Citi defendants also settled SEC claims through an administrative action, but she eventually accepted the settlement without demanding any big changes.