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.
More than four years after the Financial Accounting Standards Board first proposed a stringent new standard for corporate disclosure of litigation loss contingencies, it voted Monday to drop the effort, citing increased scrutiny of litigation exposure by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. The accounting rulemaker’s decision has to be considered a relief for public corporations, many of which have bitterly opposed the FASB’s litigation disclosure proposals as a gift to plaintiffs’ lawyers.
If you haven’t already, read Jesse Eisinger’s piece for ProPublica and the New York Times on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s case against the upstart credit-rating agency Egan-Jones. The SEC sued Egan-Jones – which challenged the traditional business model for rating agencies by charging users, not issuers, to opine on the riskiness of securities – for exaggerating its bona fides in a 2008 filing. Eisinger questioned the wisdom of sending Egan-Jones “to the guillotine” while letting bigger players, with business models that are susceptible to corruption, off the hook for their patently ridiculous ratings of toxic mortgage-backed securities. “This is your S.E.C., folks,” Eisinger wrote. “It courageously assails tiny firms, and at the pace of a three-toed sloth. And when it goes after its prey, it’s because it has found a box unchecked, rather than any kind of deep, systemic rot.”
There’s a very good chance that former Securities and Exchange Commission general counsel David Becker owes absolutely nothing to the folks who lost money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Nevertheless, on Monday, Becker and his two brothers agreed to turn over every penny of the proceeds they received from their mother’s long-ago Madoff investment account, a total of $556,017. Becker, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, didn’t return my call seeking comment. But he is doubtless hoping that the $556,017 settlement with Madoff bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard of Baker & Hostetler puts an end to the ugliest chapter in his career.
If the Securities and Exchange Commission were an ordinary investor, it would already be too late in trying to sue the banks that issued (allegedly) deficient mortgage-backed securities.
Late Friday the Securities and Exchange Commission confirmed in a statement what the New York Times first reported Friday morning: it has changed its policy on the boilerplate “neither admit nor deny” language in most SEC settlement agreements. But don’t get too excited. The change will affect only cases in which the defendant has admitted guilt or been convicted in a related criminal action. In settlements with those criminal defendants, the SEC will delete “inconsistent” concessions and instead “recite the fact and nature of the criminal conviction or criminal [admission] in the settlement documents.”
For the last three years, since the housing bubble burst, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Association (Freddie Mac). Fannie and Freddie, after all, were the biggest players in the mortgage lending and securitization business, and there’s a lot of sentiment that they deserve a hefty share of blame for encouraging the financial industry’s voracious appetite for mortgage loans, no matter how deficiently underwritten. The problem for regulators hoping to hold Fannie and Freddie accountable, though, is that the previously quasi-private agencies went into public receivership conservatorship in 2008. Any SEC suit against Fannie and Freddie would essentially be one wing of the U.S. government seeking damages against another.
In 2006, Bear Stearns entered a $250 million settlement of Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that its traders engaged in illicit market timing for certain preferred customers. Like scores of SEC defendants concerned with liability in related civil litigation, Bear insisted on the language that’s become boilerplate in SEC settlements. So “without admitting or denying” the SEC’s findings, the bank agreed to disgorge $160 million and pay a $90 million penalty.
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.