Opinion

Alison Frankel

In new amicus brief, SEC wants to protect whistleblowers – and itself

Alison Frankel
Feb 21, 2014 19:30 UTC

In 2012 and 2013, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was considering the question of whether Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions protect whistleblowers who report their concerns internally, rather than to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC stayed out of the fray. The case, Khaled Asadi v. G.E. Energy, centered on the tension between two sections of Dodd-Frank, one of which seemed to define whistleblowers only as those who tip the SEC about potential misconduct by their employers. In its Dodd-Frank implementation process, the SEC attempted to resolve the tension, issuing rules to clarify that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation regardless of whether they report concerns to the agency or up the chain of command through internal compliance programs, as the older Sarbanes-Oxley Act had encouraged. The SEC’s rules have convinced most of the federal trial judges who have considered the scope of Dodd-Frank whistleblower protections; courts have typically cited the deference due to the agency’s interpretation of a law it is responsible for enforcing.

Not the 5th Circuit, however. Last July, the appeals court dismissed Asadi’s retaliation suit against G.E., holding that he is not a Dodd-Frank whistleblower because he first informed his boss, and not the SEC, about possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations in G.E. Energy’s dealings with Iraqi officials. The 5th Circuit said it didn’t need to reach the SEC’s interpretation because the statutory language of Dodd-Frank is unambiguous: Whistleblowers are defined as those who report suspicions to the SEC.

The same issue of the scope of protection for whistleblowers who have reported internally is now before the 2nd Circuit, in a Dodd-Frank retaliation case brought by Meng-Lin Liu, a former Taiwanese compliance officer for a Chinese subsidiary of Siemens. And this time, the SEC isn’t taking any chances that the appeals court will ignore the agency’s prerogatives. On Thursday, the SEC filed an amicus brief explaining its position – and explaining why the courts owe deference to the agency’s statutory interpretation.

It’s certainly no surprise that the SEC argues whistleblowers are permitted to bring Dodd-Frank retaliation claims regardless of whether they reported internally or to the commission. That has been the SEC’s position since Dodd-Frank rulemaking began. In the amicus brief, as it has before, the agency contends that it was anxious to preserve the viability of internal compliance programs companies that adopted after Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted in 2002. Those internal controls are an essential component of securities enforcement, the SEC brief said, so its final Dodd-Frank rules “were carefully calibrated to (provide) ‘strong incentives’ for individuals in appropriate circumstances to report internally in the first instance.”

I’ll skip the nitty-gritty details of the regulatory language by which the SEC attempted to clarify the scope of Dodd-Frank whistleblower protection, since the commission’s intentions are perfectly clear. But the big question for the 2nd Circuit, after the 5th Circuit ruling in the Asadi case, is whether courts must defer to the SEC’s interpretation. That requires a two-step analysis: Was the statute ambiguous and did the SEC adopt a reasonable interpretation of the law? The 5th Circuit stopped at the first question because it found the statute unambiguous. So the SEC’s amicus brief devotes several pages to demonstrating the confusion in the statutory language. Part of its argument, in fact, is the “bizarre consequences” of the 5th Circuit’s holding to the contrary. It simply cannot be, the brief said, that Congress meant to add anti-retaliation protection for whistleblowers who report both internally and to the SEC while leaving those who report only internally without any cause of action if they’re fired.

Here’s what the government and judiciary think of serial whistleblowers

Alison Frankel
Oct 4, 2013 19:55 UTC

In a post earlier this week, I wrote about whistleblower lawyers’ concerns that unsuspecting tipsters will be misled into signing up with one of the many non-lawyer groups advertising on the Internet for Dodd-Frank whistleblowers. Unlike lawyers’ websites, ads by non-lawyers aren’t subject to state bar regulations. Nor are fee agreements between whistleblowers and non-lawyer agents. Lawyers who regularly represent tipsters told me that a proliferation of supposedly deceptive ads after the Securities and Exchange Commission implemented its whistleblower bounty program is one of the biggest problems in their business.

Repeat False Claims Act plaintiff Joseph Piacentile’s group, Whistleblowers Against Fraud, long predates the SEC program and is certainly not deceptive in representing its legal expertise online. WAF’s website says very clearly that the organization is composed not of lawyers but of former whistleblowers who want to “partner with our clients to develop the strongest case possible, recommend the right attorney for their case, and guide them through each phase of their case.” (As for fees, WAF says it takes a percentage of the whistleblower’s recovery but makes individual arrangements with each client.) Instead of legal advice, WAF sells its “experience and relationships,” which it says “are invaluable in developing large, successful whistleblower actions.” Government lawyers, the website says, have come to know and trust the (unidentified) principals of WAF, who have assisted the federal government and state authorities in recovering billions of dollars.

But relations between Piacentile and at least some of those government lawyers are decidedly frayed. On Sept. 30, U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson of Brooklyn dismissed a False Claims Act case that Piacentile and a former Amgen sales representative brought against the pharma company, granting a motion by the U.S. Attorney’s office that claimed the whistleblowers’ information added little or nothing to the government’s $780 million settlement in 2011 of civil and criminal allegations against Amgen. Johnson’s opinion picked up the skeptical undertones of the government’s motion to dismiss. Like government lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s dismissal brief, the judge cited Piacentile’s 1991 conviction for income tax evasion and conspiracy to make false Medicare claims, and said that after his conviction the former physician “gained notoriety as a repeat whistleblower.” Johnson’s dismissal of the suit effectively shuts Piacentile and his fellow Amgen whistleblower, Kevin Kilcoyne, out of any recovery because they previously rejected the government’s offer of a $1.8 million bounty from its 2011 settlement with Amgen.

Don’t get too excited about JPMorgan’s admissions to the SEC

Alison Frankel
Sep 19, 2013 19:18 UTC

The Securities and Exchange Commission was pretty darn pumped about its $200 million settlement Thursday with JPMorgan Chase, part of the bank’s $920 million resolution of regulatory claims stemming from losses in the notorious “London Whale” proprietary trading. And why not? As George Cannellos, the co-director of enforcement, said in a statement, JPMorgan’s $200 million civil penalty is one of the largest in SEC history. The agency also showed that it’s serious about its new policy of demanding admissions of liability from some defendants. For those of us accustomed to the SEC’s “neither admit nor deny” boilerplate, it’s startling to see the words “publicly acknowledging that it violated the federal securities laws” in an SEC settlement announcement. So let’s permit Cannellos some chest-thumping: “The SEC required JPMorgan to admit the facts in the SEC’s order – and acknowledge that it broke the law – because JPMorgan’s egregious breakdowns in controls and governance put its millions of shareholders at risk and resulted in inaccurate public filings.”

Until the SEC changed its policy in June, enforcement officials had insisted that defendants wouldn’t settle with the agency if they had to admit liability because they feared the collateral consequences of their admissions in private shareholder class actions. JPMorgan is in the midst of fierce litigation with its shareholders, who claim the bank lied about its Chief Investment Office in public filings dating back to 2010. So you might assume that the bank’s SEC admissions seal their win, and now it’s just a matter of how big a check JPMorgan will have to write to settle the case.

But if you look closely at what JPMorgan actually admitted, you’ll see that the SEC settlement won’t be of much use to shareholders in the class action. Don’t misunderstand me: JPMorgan is extremely unlikely to escape from the private shareholder case without paying a lot of money. That’s not because of the SEC settlement, however. As I’ll explain, the bank’s lawyers did a very good job of tailoring JPMorgan’s admissions to the SEC to minimize their impact in the class action. In fact, I suspect that future SEC defendants are going to look at the JPMorgan settlement as a model for how to quench regulators’ thirst for blood without spilling a drop in parallel shareholder litigation.

Does Dodd-Frank protect foreign whistle-blowers?

Alison Frankel
Aug 14, 2013 18:25 UTC

In the first full year of operation for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Dodd-Frank whistle-blower program, the agency received 324 tips from whistle-blowers working outside of the United States – almost 11 percent of all the whistle-blower reports received by the SEC. If those tips eventually result in sanctions of more than $1 million, the SEC whistle-blowers will be in line for bounties. But if they’re fired by their companies for disclosing corporate wrongdoing, they may not be able to sue under Dodd-Frank because the law’s anti-retaliation protection for whistle-blowers does not specify that it extends overseas. And as you know, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Morrison v. National Australia Bank holds that civil laws should be presumed not to apply overseas unless they say otherwise.

Morrison’s application to Dodd-Frank’s whistle-blower protection is playing out right now in federal court in Manhattan, in a retaliation suit brought by a Taiwanese compliance officer for a Chinese subsidiary of Siemens. (The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the case.) Meng-Lin Liu and his lawyer at Kaiser Saurborn & Mair allege that after Liu reported his suspicions to Siemens’ CFO for Healthcare in China, claiming that the company was violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by engaging in a kickback scheme involving the sale to public hospitals of medical imaging equipment, he was dismissed from his job. In January 2013, Liu sued Siemens under Dodd-Frank for double his back pay.

Siemens’ lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis raised two defenses in the company’s motion to dismiss the suit. Liu wasn’t entitled to protection under Dodd-Frank, Siemens said, because he had initially reported his concerns internally, and not to the SEC. And moreover, he wasn’t covered by Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions because they don’t specifically extend abroad.

Appeals court restricts Dodd-Frank protection for whistle-blowers

Alison Frankel
Jul 18, 2013 18:59 UTC

If Khaled Asadi, a former GE Energy executive who lost his job after alerting his boss to concerns that GE might have run afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, had sued his old employer in New York or Connecticut, things might have worked out differently for him. Several federal trial judges in those jurisdictions have ruled that whistle-blowers who report corporate wrongdoing internally are protected by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, even though the statute defines whistle-blowers as employees who report securities violations to the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Asadi, who worked in GE Energy’s office in Amman, Jordan, filed a claim that the company had illegally retaliated against him in federal district court in Houston. And on Wednesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – with hardly a nod to contrary lower-court decisions in other circuits – ruled that Asadi is not a whistle-blower under Dodd-Frank because he talked to his boss and not the SEC.

The 5th Circuit opinion, written by Judge Jennifer Elrod for a panel that also included Judge Stephen Higginson and U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson (sitting by designation), highlights the tension between whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. SOX, as you recall, directs employees to report possible wrongdoing up the corporate chain of command. SOX whistle-blowers must exhaust administrative remedies before they can sue and may only recover back pay. Dodd-Frank, on the other hand, directs whistle-blowers to bring their concerns to the SEC and permits them to sue for double the pay they lost through corporate retaliation. You can see why employees would rather bring claims under Dodd-Frank than SOX: They can get to court without clearing as many procedural obstacles and can recover twice as much money. You can also see why defendants argue that employees who went to their bosses instead of reporting to the SEC don’t qualify as Dodd-Frank whistle-blowers.

The SEC tried to solve this problem in 2011, when it implemented its final rule on Dodd-Frank whistle-blowers. In the provisions that dealt with anti-retaliation protection, the commission incorporated a reference to Sarbanes-Oxley, holding that Dodd-Frank gives employees a private cause of action against their employers if they have suffered retaliation for reporting violations to the SEC, cooperating with an SEC investigation or “making disclosures that are required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.”

A cautionary tale for whistle-blowers, from the SEC’s own ranks

Alison Frankel
Nov 16, 2012 23:21 UTC

On Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission released its annual report on the activities of the whistle-blower office it established in late 2011, at the direction of the Dodd-Frank Act. The office’s eight lawyers received 3,001 whistle-blower tips in the SEC’s fiscal year 2012, which ended on Sept. 30. A total of 547 tips involved alleged misconduct in corporate disclosure, 465 alleged offering fraud and 457 related to stock manipulation. At least one bore fruit: In August, the SEC made its first bounty payment to a whistle-blower whose tip led to a judgment of more than $1 million. The agency said the whistle-blower office is processing an undisclosed number of additional whistle-blower bounty applications.

In an odd quirk of timing, on the same day that the SEC reported on the whistle-blower tips it has received, it was hit with a $20 million suit by a former member of its own inspector general’s office. David Weber, who was terminated last month from his post as assistant IG for investigations, claims he was fired for blowing the whistle on misconduct by former IG David Kotz, the aggressive ethics cop known for probes of the SEC’s former general counsel David Becker and enforcement director Robert Khuzami.

Weber’s 77-page complaint, filed by his lawyers at Joseph, Greenwald & Laake in federal district court in Washington, portrays the SEC IG’s office as a hotbed of sexual tension and professional backstabbing — irony indeed, considering that the office’s entire purpose is to police the conduct of SEC employees. From Weber’s telling, the top echelon of the IG’s office seemed to spend a disproportionate amount of time on internecine accusations and investigations. His own downfall, he asserts, was triggered by his report to the five SEC commissioners that the acting IG, who allegedly had a sexual history with Kotz, was covering up Kotz’s conflicts of interests in high-profile investigations. (Seriously, the allegations in Weber’s complaint could be the basis of a prime-time soap opera.)

How much should corporations admit to SEC, Justice Department?

Alison Frankel
Oct 19, 2012 21:33 UTC

Last April, as a follow-up to revelations that Wal-Mart had allegedly covered up bribes paid by its Mexican subsidiary, the great Corporate Counsel reporter Sue Reisinger ran a very surprising piece. Despite the scandal engulfing Wal-Mart, defense lawyers told Reisinger that the company may have made a strategically smart decision not to disclose the matter to the government. Smart? Really? Would Wal-Mart’s alleged bribery have blown up into a public relations fiasco that cried out for governmental consequences if the company had quietly admitted the facts to the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Justice Department?

I figured Dodd-Frank’s whistle-blower provisions would make corporate self-reporting even more of a no-brainer, since insiders now have not only a moral and legal incentive but also a powerful financial motive to alert the SEC when they suspect wrongdoing. According to BuckleySandler partner Thomas Sporkin, who until last June was chief of the SEC’s Office of Market Intelligence, the commission receives 1.2 whistle-blower tips a day, on average. If I were a corporate official wondering whether to self-report, I’d assume that one of those tips was about my company and run to the feds before they came to me.

But according to several of the most prominent SEC enforcement advisers in Washington, w ho were speaking Thursday at Securities Docket’s Securities Enforcement Forum, corporations should think hard about the decision to confess their sins or handle problems internally. “You have to decide whether the issue merits the government’s involvement,” said William McLucas of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in a follow-up phone conversation Friday. Even in an era in which “you have to assume there are no secrets,” McLucas said, problems that fall short of systemic wrongdoing call for judgment, not reflexive confession. “That’s why you have compliance systems and controls,” he said.

In SEC enforcement, size matters

Alison Frankel
Sep 14, 2012 16:19 UTC

For good or ill, one of my themes over the last 18 months has been frustration with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement efforts. And according to a recently published study by Berkeley Law professor Stavros Gadinis, I’m not alone. Gadinis’s paper, posted Wednesday at the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, said that it’s been three decades since any academic analysis of SEC enforcement actions against broker-dealers. In that time, Gadinis wrote, the information vacuum has been filled with complaints about the commission’s perceived foot-dragging and questions about the so-called revolving door between the SEC and private law firms. To add some substance to the discussion, Gadinis undertook what he said was the first systematic examination of SEC enforcement actions against broker-dealers — a category that includes major financial institutions — in 30 years, analyzing more than 400 cases finalized in 1998 and 2005-2007. (Gadinis added 1998 to the study so it would include cases brought in a Democratic administration.) His overall conclusion: Size matters, at least when you’re a broker-dealer facing off against the SEC. According to the prof’s data, firms with more than 1,000 employees fared much better than their smaller counterparts in terms of whether cases are brought against individual defendants; whether the SEC brought cases as administrative proceedings; and what kind of sanctions the SEC extracted.

“Big firms get different treatment,” Gadinis said in a phone interview Thursday. “That could be for many reasons (but) it’s not a nice result for the SEC, which is supposed to be a unbiased regulator of markets. Whatever the motivation, the results are not good.”

Gadinis said it’s too soon to opine on the SEC’s actions since the first four months of 2007, which is when his study ended. He also said that ideally, his data would have included SEC investigations that did not result in enforcement actions, but, as I’ve noted, those aren’t captured in publicly available materials. But with those caveats, Gadinis said his study indicates that, historically, the SEC “is reluctant to bring cases against individuals connected with big firms.”

New study says SEC revolving door not important. Don’t believe it.

Alison Frankel
Aug 7, 2012 15:13 UTC

My hat is off to the four authors of a new study called “Does the Revolving Door Affect the SEC’s Enforcement Outcomes?” which was to be presented Monday at the American Accounting Association. As the New York Times was the first to report, researchers from Emory, Rutgers, the University of Washington and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University set out to reach a quantitative answer to a question everyone thinks they already know the answer to. Instead, the study found that there’s no measurable impact on enforcement from lawyers moving in and out of the SEC.

I wasn’t surprised that there’s scant statistical evidence of ambitious lawyers at the Securities and Exchange Commission punting on cases to curry favor with future clients; most SEC lawyers expect to go work for law firms, and firms like to hire regulators with a reputation for toughness, not laxity. (Remember the bidding wars for former Enron prosecutors?) But I was taken aback by a secondary finding in the study: Firms with a high concentration of SEC alumni don’t achieve measurably better results than other firms for clients in enforcement actions. That should cause some eyebrows to rise among the clientele of firms like Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which pride themselves on offering clients counsel based on the collective experience of their corps of SEC alums. If clients really aren’t faring any better when they hire firms with specialized SEC enforcement defense practices, why bother to pay for their experience?

But there’s one big reason to take that aspect of the study with a grain of salt. It comes down to the inability of even the most nuanced statistical analysis to measure the unmeasurable.

The Stoker verdict and Citi’s settlement with the SEC

Alison Frankel
Aug 2, 2012 15:10 UTC

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.

But, ironically, the verdict could improve the odds of a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff improperly rejected the SEC’s $285 million settlement with Citi in the agency’s parallel suit against the bank.

As you probably recall, the appeals court has already expressed considerable skepticism about Rakoff’s decision last November to reject the settlement. At the time, Rakoff said he had the right to determine whether the deal was in the public interest. And it wasn’t, he said, because Citi hadn’t acknowledged wrongdoing and was paying what amounted to “pocket change” to make the SEC case go away. The truth matters, Rakoff said in his opinion, and for all he and the public knew, the truth of this case could be that Citi hadn’t actually done anything wrong. For good measure, Rakoff ruled in December that the SEC must proceed with its case even though the agency and Citi filed a joint appeal of his November ruling to the 2nd Circuit.

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