Insider Trading Probe Reinforces Immediate Need for Strongest SEC Whistleblower Program

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reports a “sweeping” insider trading investigation, with civil and criminal charges soon to follow, involving “consultants, investment bankers, hedge-fund and mutual-fund traders, and analysts across the nation.”

While the details remain to be seen, the unending series of fraud cases that continue–despite Sarbanes-Oxley–proves why Wall Street must not be allowed to neuter the first potentially meaningful SEC whistleblower program, mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

How is it that the hallowed “compliance programs” born from Sarbanes-Oxley have utterly failed to stop the breathtaking frauds of Madoff, Stanford, and other recent post-SOX scandals?

As many honest employees encountering fraud discover, too often “compliance programs” mask efforts to identify employees who object to wrongdoing, so the wrongdoers can then gut their careers.

How well did compliance programs work at the many Madoff-abetting feeder funds that made scores of millions, as Madoff’s scheme spread to snare more victims? Read Harry Markopolis’ book to see how many of those firms’ “compliance” efforts worked, as Madoff’s enablers ignored glaring warning signs that multiplied over the life of the scheme.

SEC Chair Mary Schapiro and Director of Enforcement Robert Khuzami seem dedicated to invigorating the SEC’s enforcement efforts. While the new proposed SEC whistleblower rules show considerable thought, they threaten the program’s effectiveness by bowing too far to industry concerns, and excluding many potential whistleblowers such as accountants, who may be the best position to stop the next Madoff.

Wall Street would have the SEC create a labyrinth of further exceptions to who can participate in the new SEC Whistleblower program. One lethal industry proposal is to require potential whistleblowers first to run the gauntlet of firms’ “compliance” programs–a concept wholly inconsistent with Congress’ intent that whistleblowers must be allowed to report violations anonymously.

The initial screening of SEC whistleblower claims should not be outsourced to the very firms alleged to have violated the law, which is what mandatory internal reporting effectively would do. The SEC–like the Department of Justice and IRS–should be the first to screen SEC whistleblower claims. With any SEC whistleblower claim large enough to pursue, by definition the culpable firm has typically approved the violation, or at least looked the other way.

Otherwise, who in a position to expose significant fraud would come forward, if required first to reveal their objections to the fraud to those who may have approved it? And if the fraud stays concealed–as it too often has despite “compliance” programs–the public loses.

Excerpts from the WSJ article by SUSAN PULLIAM, MICHAEL ROTHFELD,JENNY STRASBURG and GREGORY ZUCKERMAN are below:

The criminal and civil probes, which authorities say could eclipse the impact on the financial industry of any previous such investigation, are examining whether multiple insider-trading rings reaped illegal profits totaling tens of millions of dollars, the people say. Some charges could be brought before year-end, they say.

The investigations, if they bear fruit, have the potential to expose a culture of pervasive insider trading in U.S. financial markets, including new ways non-public information is passed to traders through experts tied to specific industries or companies, federal authorities say.

One focus of the criminal investigation is examining whether nonpublic information was passed along by independent analysts and consultants who work for companies that provide “expert network” services to hedge funds and mutual funds. These companies set up meetings and calls with current and former managers from hundreds of companies for traders seeking an investing edge.