Monday, February 28, 2011

Whistle While You Work

If you look at the history of financial regulation in the United States, one of the things you notice is that almost all regulation of financial activity at the federal level comes as a result of some form of financial scandal or abuse. This goes all the way back to the Securities Act of 1933, which resulted from the stock market shenanigans brought to light by the Pecora hearings following the stock market crash of 1929. In more modern times, this trend has continued with the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in the wake of Enron, Tyco, and others, and the Dodd Frank Financial Reform Act of 2010 that was spawned by the housing and mortgage crisis.

These laws are usually enacted quickly, as legislators are anxious to demonstrate that they are doing something, but the resulting legislation lingers on for many years. Companies are left to deal with and adjust to murky legislative language and often burdensome regulations resulting from laws that are designed to prevent the last crisis. Often these laws have unintended consequences, such as the effect of Sarbanes-Oxley on the number of companies choosing to file their IPOs in the United States.

Now we have at least one provision tucked away in the Dodd-Frank law which may come back and bite public companies. I am referring here to the whistleblower provision in the financial reform act. Under this provision of the new law, if a whistleblower provides independent information of fraud to the SEC that results in a successful enforcement action that recovers at least $1 million in sanctions, the whistleblower is entitled to recover at least 10% and up to 30% of the recovered funds.

There are a couple of interesting twists to this legislation. The first is that the independent information regarding the fraud can come from independent analysis of public information. Thus, an outside analyst without any inside knowledge of the company’s books and records can blow the whistle on a company if their analysis shows that the company must be acting fraudulently. This was precisely what happened in the Madoff scandal, when Harry Markopolos went to the SEC with an analysis that showed the returns shown by Madoff were impossible to achieve. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to foresee a new subgroup of analysts devoted to looking for financial fraud with the thought of collecting a reward from the SEC.

It also doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think that the plaintiff’s bar would be very interested in the new whistle blower rules. Now, instead of trolling through Form 4 filings to look for Section 16(b) short swing profits violations by insiders, aggressive attorneys can cultivate relationships with short sellers in the hopes of joining together to find companies engaged in fraudulent activities. Given that short sellers are almost always convinced that companies are defrauding the public and plaintiff’s lawyers never pass up an opportunity to turn a new legal provision into a revenue stream, this is a match made in heaven.

If nothing else, people involved in the disclosure of company information pursuant to the securities laws needs to take a close look at the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd Frank law. Under the current SEC proposed regulations, whistleblowers do not even have to first go through company channels before blowing the whistle. So the company needs to get their disclosures right on the first try, because if they don’t, there may not be a chance to remedy things before the SEC is notified. And the possibility of $100,000 or more in reward money can make it very tempting for whistleblowers to accuse first and verify later.

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