Wednesday, May 4, 2011

SEC Whistleblower Program: Compliance Nightmare or Missed Opportunity?

As part of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed last summer, the Securities and Exchange Commission was given the authority to establish a whistleblower program with monetary incentives as a way to entice individuals to come forward about corporate financial wrongdoings. Section 21F provides that whistleblowers who provide new information to the SEC about financial misconduct are able to collect monetary awards totaling between ten and thirty percent of the sanctions recovered through civil or criminal proceedings that total more than $1 million. The SEC characterizes “new information” as information that is original and “based on independent knowledge not already known to the Commission nor taken exclusively from public sources.”

According to the SEC, the new whistleblower authority will help the agency maximize its resources and effectiveness by increasing the number of high-quality tips that it might not otherwise receive without the incentives in place. SEC spokesman, John Nester, has already reported that that SEC has seen a “significant increase in high-quality tips.”

However, the whistleblower program is highly controversial. Many argue that such an incentive program pits employees against employers and creates a disincentive for employees to utilize internal compliance structures mandated by the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act. According to Susan Hackett, senior vice president and general counsel for the Association of Corporate Counsel, the new program encourages “a lot of people who are being opportunistic or who are looking to actually help create problems they can then profit from.” She argues that compliance culture morphs from a “let’s fix it” attitude into a self-enterprising one, which creates clear compliance challenges. Tom Quaadman, vice president of the Capital Markets Competitiveness at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce takes a similar stance. Both advocate that whistleblowers should first be required to make use of internal reporting and investigative systems before submitting their complaints to the SEC. Further, these organizations call for a ban on monetary recovery for individuals who were engaged in the underlying misconduct before reporting. Quaadman asserts that whatever rules are finally implemented need to operate in such a way so as to promote good corporate behavior, not employee contrivance.

Another concern about the proposed Whistleblower Program is that there will be an increase in the number of frivolous allegations. This concern arises from acknowledgement that whistleblower complaints can act as a double-edged sword: they can be instrumental in identifying and correcting corporate misconduct but often, such complaints are made by underperforming employees in an attempt to advance personal grievances against their employer.

To counter these arguments, proponents of the whistleblower program cite to other successful programs with robust monetary rewards like that under the False Claims Act, which helped facilitate large settlements with pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Eli Lilly for corporate misconduct. They take the stance that individuals who become aware of misdeeds are not eager to blow the whistle, but merely do so to keep their jobs or do what is right. Even among supporters, there is dissonance regarding the scope of the SEC’s proposed program. Some advocate for a broader definition of “whistleblower” and others are skeptical about the program’s potential for success because of limited resources and the program’s failure to address coordination of investigations between overlapping federal agencies.

In November 2010, the SEC released its proposed set of rules that will be used to implement the whistleblower program. The comment period for these rules expired on December 17, 2010, but the SEC has not issued final rules yet. Under the deadline set by Dodd-Frank, the SEC was supposed to have its final rules for the Whistleblower Incentives and Protection Program in place by April 21, 2011. In an April 26 interview, Mary Shapiro, chairman of the SEC, disclosed that the SEC is “now finalizing its whistleblower rules.” However, according to the SEC’s implementation calendar, the planned finalization of the rules is slated to be released between now and July. So far, the only completed installation of the program is the establishment of the new Whistleblower Office and appointment of Sean McKessy as the new director of that office.

Despite the delay in final rules and implementation, whistleblowers are currently protected from retaliation and entitled to applicable monetary rewards because Dodd-Frank provided temporary rules applicable for anyone who came forward after July 22, 2010. These temporary rules remain in effect until the SEC passes its final rules.

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