Marked by leadership changes, high-profile trials, and shifting priorities, 2013 was a turning point for the Enforcement Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC” or the “Commission”). While the results of these management and programmatic changes will continue to play out over the next year and beyond, one notable early observation is that we expect an increasingly aggressive enforcement program.
Posts Tagged ‘Corporate fraud’
In our paper, Executives’ ‘Off-the-Job’ Behavior, Corporate Culture, and Financial Reporting Risk, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we examine how and why two aspects of top executives’ behavior outside the workplace, as measured by their legal infractions and ownership of luxury goods, are related to the likelihood of future misstated financial statements, including fraud and unintentional material reporting errors. We investigate two potential channels through which executives’ outside behavior is linked to the probability of future misstatements: (1) the executive’s propensity to misreport (hereafter “propensity channel”); and (2) changes in corporate culture (hereafter “culture channel”).
On July 2, 2013, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (the SEC) announced two new initiatives aimed at preventing and detecting improper or fraudulent financial reporting.  We previously noted that one of these initiatives, a computer-based tool called the Accounting Quality Model (AQM, or “Robocop”),  is designed to enable real-time analytical review of financial reports filed with the SEC in order to help identify questionable accounting practices.
The collective behavior of corporate leaders is often critical in corporate wrongdoing, and the CEO often plays the central role. Yet there is no comprehensive study exploring how CEOs and their influence within executive suites and the boardroom impact corporate wrongdoing. In our paper, CEO Connectedness and Corporate Frauds, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we focus on the effects of CEOs’ social influence accumulated during the CEO’s tenure through top executive and director appointment decisions.
On December 4, the European Commission announced the imposition of €1.7 billion in fines on eight international banks for participation in cartels in euro- and yen-denominated interest-rate derivatives. The banks had conspired on submissions for euro and yen Libor rates, and the fines were imposed under European antitrust law. As EU Commissioner Joaquín Almunia said, “What is shocking about the LIBOR and EURIBOR scandals is not only the manipulation of benchmarks, which is being tackled by financial regulators worldwide, but also the collusion between banks who are supposed to be competing with each other.”
Commissioner Almunia’s comment might have been addressed specifically to U.S. antitrust enforcers. Although the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has been involved in some of the settlements that the department has reached with banks, to date none of those settlements has included antitrust liability. Instead, the banks have pled guilty or admitted liability only for fraud, even though the statements issued by the Justice Department when announcing the settlements describe just the sort of collusion to which Commissioner Almunia referred.
On November 15, 2013, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “the Commission”) released its Annual Report to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program (“the Report”). The Report is remarkable for three reasons. First, the Report shows that, despite very significant efforts to publicize the program, the SEC is not seeing a meaningful increase in the number of tips it receives. Indeed, the SEC received essentially the same number of tips in the same categories in 2013 as it did in 2012 (3,283 and 3,001, respectively). Second, consistent with the few awards made under the program, the Report fails to shed any light at all on the SEC’s thought process in making these awards, and provides no insight into how the SEC is applying the highly nuanced factors applicable to award decisions. Finally, the Report does not acknowledge that, for the second year in a row, the largest category of tips were in the “other” category, which suggests that many of these tips are probably meritless, nor does the Report illuminate at all the critical question of how many of the tips the SEC receives actually result in meaningful investigations and cases.
In our paper, Do Fraudulent Firms Engage in Disclosure Herding?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we present two new hypotheses regarding the strategic qualitative disclosure choices of firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity. First, these firms have incentives to herd with industry peers in order to escape detection. Second, these firms have incentives to locally anti-herd with the same peers on specific aspects of disclosure consistent with achieving fraud-driven objectives. We use text-based analysis of firm disclosures and compare disclosures across firms involved in SEC enforcement actions to benchmarks based on industry, size and age, and also to each firm’s own disclosure before and after SEC alleged violations.
We hypothesize that firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity face tensions when providing qualitative disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing anti-fraud laws. Our focus is on the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section of the 10-K, which is where managers have a high level of discretion to describe the key issues facing their firms and to describe their performance in detail. A primary motive is to escape detection, and managers who assume that the SEC is less likely to scrutinize disclosures that resemble industry peers, or that such disclosure is less likely to raise red flags, have incentives to herd with industry peers. On the other hand, the same objectives that lead managers to commit fraud may also provide incentives to anti-herd in their disclosure from industry peers. However, these latter incentives are likely more localized, and anti-herding would be predicted only on disclosure dimensions that might help managers to achieve these objectives.
Deferred Prosecution Agreements (“DPAs”) and Non-Prosecution Agreements (“NPAs”) (collectively, “agreements”) continue to be a consistent vehicle for prosecutors and companies alike in resolving allegations of corporate wrongdoing. In the two decades since their emergence as an alternative to the extremes of indictment and outright declination, DPAs and NPAs have risen in prominence, frequency, and scope. Such agreements are now a mainstay of the U.S. corporate enforcement regime, with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) leading the way, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently expanding its use of this tool. These types of agreements have achieved official acceptance as a middle ground between exclusively civil enforcement (or even no enforcement action at all) and a criminal conviction and sentence. With the United Kingdom’s recent enactment of its own DPA legislation, the trend toward use of these alternative means for resolving allegations of corporate wrongdoing is poised to continue.
On June 13, 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it had reached a settlement with Revlon, Inc. (Revlon) regarding allegations that Revlon deceived minority shareholders in connection with a 2009 “going private” transaction.  Under Section 13(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 13e-3 thereunder issuers are prohibited from taking fraudulent or deceitful actions in connection with a “going private” transaction. The SEC’s rules for “going private” transactions require disclosure, among other things, of any report, opinion, or appraisal from an outside party that is materially related to the transaction.  The SEC alleged that Revlon engaged in a variety of deceptive acts in order to avoid disclosure of a third-party financial advisor’s determination that the “going private” transaction would not provide adequate consideration for minority shareholders. Revlon did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings set forth in the cease-and-desist order, but agreed to cease and desist from committing any future violations and to pay an $850,000 penalty. Section 13(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 13e-3 thereunder have rarely been the subject of SEC enforcement action. This settlement may signal that, just as the Staff of the Enforcement Division of the SEC is more generally expanding its enforcement reach into the area of private equity firms — which are often involved in going private transactions—its enforcement priorities may also be expanding into areas that have been historically addressed by private litigants in civil actions brought under state corporate fiduciary law.
In 2002, Arthur Andersen LLP collapsed in the wake of an obstruction of justice conviction. Since then, conventional wisdom has been that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) resists filing criminal charges against large business entities because of fears of another similar failure. Indeed, the DOJ has consistently acknowledged that it considers such risks, and the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual expressly identifies “collateral consequences” as a factor that should be weighed in making charging decisions. In the wake of the Great Recession, however, the DOJ has been faced with competing pressures, especially with respect to financial institutions. On the one hand, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, among other bank failures and near-failures, suggested vulnerability on the part of some financial institutions and illustrated the potentially grave consequences that the collapse of a financial institution can have on the broader economy. The DOJ clearly does not want to cause a financial institution to fail. On the other hand, there is a pervasive public sentiment that large financial institutions were responsible for the economic collapse from which the country is only now emerging. Particularly in recent months, the DOJ has been criticized for its decision not to bring criminal charges against any major financial entity.