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Timing is Everything in a Whistleblower Response
This is the second article in a series presenting post Dodd-Frank best practices for in-house counsel and compliance professionals.
Two and a half years after its passage and more than a year after key rules went into effect, the Dodd-Frank Acts whistleblower program has generated more than 3,000 tips, complaints, and referrals, and yielded its first announced Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement action this year.
The programs first reward was made in August 2012, reportedly to a whistleblower who helped the SEC stop a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. Further, the SECs annual report on the whistleblower provisions says judgments and orders issued during the 2012 fiscal year exceeded the programs statutory threshold of $1 million in 143 cases.
Though the full scope of the program continues to unfold, the fact that 3,000-plus individuals believe they have stories of malfeasance to tell indicates the program is gaining tractionand sends a clear signal that regulated entities had better be ready to react if and when a whistleblower investigation arises. Corporate counsel and compliance officers must anticipate areas of risk, actively monitor practices, and prepare appropriate responses in advance. And when it comes to anticipating risk, the primary concern is not just how to respond to a whistleblower allegation, but how quickly to respond.
That can be a particularly vexing issue as large or complex companies may fall subject to multiple self-reporting mechanisms with different time requirements. These include the SECs zero-grace period as set out in the adopting release for the whistleblower rules, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authoritys (FINRA) 30-day filing requirement as set out in Rule 4530, and the SECs annual review requirement as set out in the adviser and fund compliance rules.
When the SEC designed its whistleblower rules, the agency made participating in internal compliance systems a factor that could increase the amount of a whistleblowers ultimate bounty award. When whistleblowers contact an internal compliance officer, they are given 120 days to report to the SEC. This look-back period gives whistleblowers time to decide whether or not to report the issue to the SEC
At the same time, however, the SEC also said that how quickly an entity self-reports its misconduct to the public, to regulatory agencies, and to self-regulatory organizations would be an important factor when considering whether and to what extent to grant leniency for cooperating in its investigations and related enforcement actions. Moreover, while the SEC gives the whistleblower 120 days after making an internal report to decide whether or not to report to the agency, no extra time was extended to the companies receiving the reports.
The SEC emphasized that the 120 days given whistleblowers is not a grace period for companies to determine their response to the allegations. Indeed, it said, companies frequently elect to contact the staff in the early stages of an internal investigation in order to self-report violations that have been identified. In other words, the 120-day grace period applies only to the whistleblower. It does not and should not affect how quickly an entity self-reports to the SEC.
Thats not the only area where the reporting distinctions are subtle. In 2003 and 2004, the SEC adopted rules that require investment companies and advisers to designate a chief compliance officer and adopt written policies and procedures; and that require investment advisers to create a written code of ethics for their supervised persons. The rules also require CCOs to provide a report annually to the funds board that addresses each material compliance matter that has occurred since the date of the last report.
Importantly, these reports are meant to be made available to the SEC and its staff and are not subject to the attorney-client privilege, the work product protection, or other similar protections. Thus, the results of the annual reviews and, specifically, funds reports of material compliance matters are open to review by regulators.
In this instance, a whistleblower allegation requires a judgment call by the general counsel and the CCO. First, they must determine what, if anything needs to be confessed. Then they must decide whether its more prudent to self-report immediately or simply include the investigation findings in the report to the board, which is open to SEC review.
In yet another context, having an understanding of the severity of the violation will directly impact the general counsels decision on how quickly to report. In 2010, the SEC approved a FINRA rule that requires a member broker-dealer to self-report within 30 days when it concludes, or should have concluded, that the entity or an associated person of the entity has violated any laws, rules, regulations, or standards of conduct. FINRA has indicated that it expects reports only about serious conduct: involving a widespread impact, material failures, numerous customers, or significant dollar amounts. A judgment call, once again, is required here as to whether the conduct in question is serious enough to warrant a response within the 30-day window, within the 120-day look-back period, or, indeed, whether it merits any response at all.
From a regulatory perspective, one can readily understand the core benefits of swift self-reporting of known violations: quick confessions avoid the need to expend public and private resources. Nonetheless, this expectation places a company in a difficult conundrum when it finds itself in possession of incomplete but suggestive information.
While prudence may dictate further internal inquiry, regulatory expectations demand immediate self-reporting. The pressure will be even greater if an employee has stepped forward to report the problem, and his or her time is running down to decide whether or not to seek compensation as a whistleblower.
Given the brief timeframe for self-reporting, conducting a thorough and definitive internal investigation is all but impossible for an institution that has not laid the appropriate foundation ahead of time. Reporting to the SEC with a partial or inaccurate assessment of violationsa common occurrencecan make matters worse.
In plain terms, if a company initiates its internal criticism at the first sound of a whistle, it is already too late. Legal and compliance professionals should not wait until this situation is upon them. The only way a company can make the subtle and nuanced judgments necessary in the brief time period required is to prepare a system of rapid, thorough assessment well in advance.
John. H. Walsh is a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. He previously served for 23 years at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he was instrumental in creating the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations.