Two years after its much-hyped debut as part of Dodd-Frank, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower has awarded its first big bounty. Defense and plaintiffs lawyers alike say the size of the award, as well as the steps the SEC took to protect the anonymity of the whistleblower, will entice others to come forward.
In a press release Tuesday, the SEC said it will award $14 million to a whistleblower “whose information led to an SEC enforcement action that recovered substantial investor funds.” To shield the whistleblower’s identity, the SEC didn’t reveal any details of the enforcement action, including the name of the target.
“The award today is a game-changer,” Bradley Bondi, the head of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft’s securities enforcement and investigations practice, said in an email. “This is a significant amount that will motivate potential whistleblowers to contact the SEC.”
The award is the third since the SEC instituted a new whistleblower program in early 2011, and by far the largest. In August 2012, the agency paid $50,000 to Dee Dee Stone, a tax consultant who exposed a Ponzi scheme in Texas. In August and September of this year, the SEC paid out a similar sum to three anonymous whistleblowers credited by the SEC with exposing a sham hedge fund, Locust Offshore Management.
When the SEC announced the other awards, it included more details about the corporate wrongdoing at issue, said Jordan Thomas, a former high-ranking SEC lawyer who helped implement the Dodd-Frank whistleblower provisions and then made the unusual jump in 2011 to plaintiffs firm Labaton Sucharow. The lack of identifying details in Tuesday’s announcement shows the agency’s commitment to keeping tipsters out of the public eye, Thomas said. “In light of this award, many individuals who were on the fence will choose to come forward. They know that their identity will be protected,” he said.
The size of Tuesday’s payout suggests that it’s tied to an SEC recovery in the neighborhood of $50 million or more, since the maximum share reserved for whistleblowers is 30 percent. The SEC designated the award in a two-page order.
For the last two years, “you’ve heard rumbling about how there haven’t been any big awards,” Thomas said. “But the typical investigation takes two to four years to complete. This is the tip of the iceberg.”