As we noted last year in our memorandum focused on 2013 developments, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White has called for the SEC to be more aggressive in its enforcement program. By all accounts, the Enforcement Division has responded to that call. The past year saw the SEC continue the trend, started under Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami in 2009, of transforming the SEC’s civil enforcement arm into an aggressive law enforcement agency modeled on a federal prosecutor’s office. This should not come as a surprise since both Andrew Ceresney, the current Director, and George Cannellos, Ceresney’s Co-Director for a brief period of time, like Khuzami, spent many years as federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. And the Commission itself is now led for the first time by a former federal prosecutor, Mary Jo White, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. Given the events of the past decade involving the Madoff fraud and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, we believe both the aggressive tone and positions the SEC has taken in recent years will continue.
Posts Tagged ‘Accountability’
The term “accountability” is virtually ubiquitous within literature and debates on organizational governance, and especially within corporate governance. However, as a social phenomenon it is frequently misunderstood, particularly by corporate lawyers.
To a large extent, this is unsurprising. After all, it is to be expected that complex sociological issues posed by the historically peculiar scale and structure of public companies—such as decisional power, accountability and legitimacy—will be received somewhat uneasily within orthodox corporate law discourse. Indeed, with limited exceptions, Anglo-American corporate law scholarship today remains rooted in the traditional conceptual habitat of private law, with its characteristic focus on the discrete relational transaction. A latent but nonetheless significant consequence of this has been the definitional “fudging” by corporate lawyers of some inherently public-governmental phenomena that are relevant to corporate governance, in an attempt to render them consistent with the logic and language of private law. This is true nowhere more than with respect to the difficult concept of accountability.
During the past seven years, the SEC has taken action on a significant number of issues. There is little doubt, that these years have been one of the most active periods in SEC history. For example, during this period, the Commission voted on almost 250 rulemaking releases, both proposing rules and adopting final rules. Many of these rulemakings have been ground-breaking.
Still, even with all that activity, the SEC has not finished its work on many ongoing issues, such as the need to improve disclosures related to target-date funds and municipal securities. The Commission also has not completed many of its outstanding statutory mandates. I plan to use my time with you today [February 20, 2015] to lay out a few important priorities that the SEC should pursue in 2015 in order to move toward completing its outstanding work, to strengthen the Commission and do right by the public.
Despite recent setbacks, efforts by activist groups to pressure companies to disclose details of their political activities are not going away. As these groups become increasingly sophisticated, 2015 looks to be their most active year to date. In fact, for the first time ever, the Center for Political Accountability plans to issue a report this year ranking the political spending disclosure practices of all 500 companies in the S&P 500 Index. This post highlights recent developments regarding corporate political spending disclosure efforts, looks ahead to what public companies can expect in the near future, and provides strategies and tips for those grappling with disclosure issues.
The ability of corporate directors to exercise effective judgment and oversight will be aided by an awareness of emerging white collar enforcement trends of the federal government.
These trends are primarily reflected in a notable series of significant speeches and other public comments made this fall by representatives of the Department of Justice. These include speeches made by senior officials of DOJ’s Criminal and Antitrust Divisions, as well as Attorney General Holder. Collectively, these trends may help to inform boards with respect to transactional planning, risk evaluation and compliance oversight, among other critical matters.
We have written a detailed essay presenting practical vision of the responsibilities of lawyers as both professionals and as citizens at the beginning of the 21st century. Specifically, we seek to define and give content to four ethical responsibilities that we believe are of signal importance to lawyers in their fundamental roles as expert technicians, wise counselors, and effective leaders: responsibilities to their clients and stakeholders; responsibilities to the legal system; responsibilities to their institutions; and responsibilities to society at large. Our fundamental point is that the ethical dimensions of lawyering for this era must be given equal attention to—and must be highlighted and integrated with—the significant economic, political, and cultural changes affecting major legal institutions and the people and institutions lawyers serve.
Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and the Austin Wakeman Scott Lecturer on Law and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, has recently published an article in the Harvard Business Law Review. The essay, titled Making It Easier For Directors To “Do The Right Thing”, is available here. The essay posits that benefit corporation statutes have the potential to change the accountability structure within which managers operate and thus create incremental reform that puts actual power behind the idea that corporations should “do the right thing.”
The abstract of Chief Justice Strine’s essay summarizes it briefly as follows:
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), deferred prosecution agreements are said to occupy an “important middle ground” between declining to prosecute on the one hand, and trials or guilty pleas on the other. A top DOJ official has declared that, over the last decade, the agreements have become a “mainstay” of white collar criminal law enforcement; a prominent criminal law professor calls their increased use part of the “biggest change in corporate law enforcement policy in the last ten years.”
To demonstrate their effectiveness, corporate boards should increase transparency, provide an annual report of boardroom activities and take charge of their relations with shareholders.
With shareholders continuing to press for ever-deepening levels of engagement, companies must find a way to answer the most basic question of corporate governance: “How effective is the board of directors?” It is a question that can only be answered by the board itself, but it presents directors with a challenge as well as an opportunity. The challenge is to overcome the mindset, habits and perceived risks that have long kept boardroom activities under wraps. The opportunity, on the other hand, is to define governance and strategic issues from the board’s perspective, manage shareholder expectations, take the engagement initiative away from shareholders and reduce the likelihood of activism. Directors should give careful consideration to this opportunity. Over the long term, it will be far better for companies to control the process by which board transparency is achieved rather than waiting for yet again another set of governance reforms that could further erode the board’s authority.
Dozens of leading American corporations have embraced political transparency without the prodding of shareholder proposals. This is a new and important finding in the fourth annual CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability released by the Center for Political Accountability on September 24.
At the same time, the Index found that companies that have already adopted disclosure and accountability continue to strengthen their policies, making them more robust and comprehensive. All this is happening in the face of intense opposition by several of the leading business trade associations.