Articles Posted in SEC Whistleblower Program & CFTC Whistleblower Program

This past week our firm’s Larry D. Thompson,  the former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, joined me for a panel discussion that I moderated on “The False Claims Act at 30,” at the annual Taxpayers Against Fraud Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

Joining us on the panel were the Department of Justice’s Renee Brooker, an Assistant Director in the Civil Division with 25 years of DOJ experience; James J. (Jim) Breen, an accomplished qui tam lawyer whose cases have recovered almost $4 billion for federal and state taxpayers; and Neil Getnick, Chairman of TAF and an accomplished FCA lawyer in his own right.

Larry provided his observations about the importance of meaningful compliance programs to prevent and detect fraud within organizations.  He continues to share his perspective gained from years of government service, private practice, and as general counsel to a major corporation, with in-house counsel who contact him for advice.

We are proud to announce that Finch McCranie partner and head of its Whistleblower practice Michael A. Sullivan has been named to the “SuperLawyers” list for the eleventh consecutive year.

Yesterday the Justice Department apparently responded to the frequent lament, “Why has almost no one gone to prison for the financial crisis?” DOJ signaled that it will now look to hold responsible both culpable individuals and their companies for corporate misdeeds–both criminally and civilly.

If DOJ means what it says, this policy change is profound. It should hit corporate officers whose business models are based on fraud and false claims. It should also snare high level executives who turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, and who typically get away with it.

Corporations can act only through the humans who run them. Sometimes those humans steer the business to corrupt methods.

Until yesterday’s change in DOJ policy, however, the few corporations brought to heel by DOJ for crimes, fraud, or false claims absorbed the consequences, while the individuals who directed the wrongdoing usually escaped responsibility. Those individuals were free to continue their corrupt practices at the same firm or a different one.

New U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates plans to change that result. As a federal prosecutor in Atlanta, Yates was not afraid of pursuing big cases against individuals and their companies, as I learned from representing clients in some of those cases.

Yesterday Yates issued a Memorandum titled, “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing.” It is far-reaching, if implemented. Yates announced “six key steps to strengthen [DOJ’s] pursuit of individual corporate wrongdoing, some of which reflect policy shifts and each of which is described in greater detail below:
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Sean McKessy of the SEC Whistleblower Program is right to continue his mission against muzzling whistleblowers through “confidentiality” agreements, for one simple reason:

Intimidating witnesses from reporting fraud is a form of obstruction of justice.

Although “confidentiality” agreements may appear innocent on their face, a company’s suggesting in any way that its employees refrain from reporting fraud or other violations of securities laws crosses the line. Too often, that is often the effect of these agreements–if not the intent as well.

The SEC took action last month in filing and settling charges against KBR Inc. It announced this “first enforcement action against a company for using improperly restrictive language in confidentiality agreements with the potential to stifle the whistleblowing process.”

The SEC said that, in internal investigations, KBR required witnesses to sign confidentiality statements warning that they could face discipline and be fired if they discussed the matters with outside parties without the prior approval of KBR’s legal department. The SEC found that KBR violated SEC Rule 21F-17, which bars firms from impeding whistleblowers from reporting possible securities violations to the SEC.

As Mr. McKessy observed, “KBR changed its agreements to make clear that its current and former employees will not have to fear termination or retribution or seek approval from company lawyers before contacting us.” He warned that “[o]ther employers should similarly review and amend existing and historical agreements that in word or effect stop their employees from reporting potential violations to the SEC.”

Bloomberg BNA contacted me recently to comment on the prevalence of such misuse of confidentiality agreements, in a piece reprinted here in part:

“More and more we see firms attempt to conceal fraud by using ‘confidentiality agreements’ to intimidate witnesses from reporting wrongdoing to authorities,” said Michael Sullivan, a partner at Finch McCranie LLP, Atlanta, who represents SEC whistle-blowers.
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Since 2007, top officials from federal and state agencies and many of the country’s experts in whistleblower cases have gathered in Atlanta to discuss and debate anti-fraud efforts at the Whistleblower Law Symposium.

Today I was excited to chair our Whistleblower Law Symposium once again, as these experts explored the latest developments in qui tam cases under the False Claims Act, and SEC whistleblower, CFTC whistleblower and IRS whistleblower claims. The breadth of expertise of today’s speakers was unusual.

First, top enforcement officials from California, Georgia and Texas shared their approaches and priorities under their state False Claims Acts. We were honored to hear from Britt Grant, Solicitor General of Georgia, about Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens’ impressive new efforts to stop the theft of taxpayer funds.

Joining Britt Grant were California’s Nicholas Paul, Texas’ Ray Winter, and Georgia’s Van Pearlberg, who described how their offices battle Medicaid fraud that is brought to light in state False Claims Act cases. A special thanks goes to Jim Breen for moderating this discussion and sharing his own experiences in working with the states in pursuing large health care fraud cases.

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At today’s Whistleblower Law Symposium, Jim Breen joined me in presenting former Rep. Edward Lindsey with the “Integrity in State Government Award” from the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund.

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The SEC announced today its first SEC Whistleblower award to a former company officer. The award of a half-million dollars was for “original, high-quality information about a securities fraud,” which resulted in an SEC enforcement action with sanctions of more than $1 million.

Typically, corporate officers, directors and other corporate fiduciaries are not eligible for SEC Whistleblower awards when they learn of fraud through employee reports. The SEC built in flexibility in its rules, however, when the officer waits “more than 120 days after other responsible compliance personnel possessed the information and failed to adequately address the issue.” Otherwise, frauds that a dishonest company refuses to address might otherwise go unreported.

We have followed the new SEC Whistleblower Program since the Senate staff consulted us in its drafting of the SEC whistleblower provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. We represent SEC and CFTC whistleblowers in claims that concern frauds sometimes as large as $1 billion.

Yesterday’s record award to an SEC whistleblower has far-reaching consequences because the SEC made clear it will reward foreign citizens living abroad who meet its criteria for a whistleblower award.

This decision rejects any suggestion that the SEC Whistleblower Program’s reach ends at the nation’s borders. The SEC recognized that a leading federal appeals court imposed such a limitation on the anti-retaliation provisions of the Dodd-Frank law, which authorized the SEC Whistleblower Program, but announced it is taking a different approach to whistleblower awards:

“[A]lthough we recognize that the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held that there was an insufficient territorial nexus for the anti-retaliation protections of Section 21F(h) to apply to a foreign whistleblower who experienced employment retaliation overseas after making certain reports about his foreign employer, Liu v. Siemens, __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 3953672 (2d Cir. Aug. 14, 2014), we do not find that decision controlling here; the whistleblower award provisions have a different Congressional focus than the anti-retaliation provisions, which are generally focused on preventing retaliatory employment actions and protecting the employment relationship.”

Today the SEC Office of the Whistleblower announced the largest-ever award to an SEC whistleblower: $30 million to a whistleblower living abroad.

The size of the award reflects the SEC’s seriousness about utilizing whistleblowers’ information to expose major securities violations. The SEC described this as “ongoing fraud that would have been very difficult to detect” without the whistleblower, according to the Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Andrew Ceresney.

Sean McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, added that this award demonstrates the “international breadth” of the SEC whistleblower program.

“Government shutdown” month (October 2013) has brought encouraging news from the SEC–including some good news you might not realize.

On October 1, the SEC announced its first SEC whistleblower award of more than $1 million. The Commission’s Office of the Whistleblowerer led by Sean McKessy awarded more than $14 million to a whistleblower who remains confidential. According to the SEC, the whistleblower’s information “led to an SEC enforcement action that recovered substantial investor funds.”

Two weeks later, a Texas jury found against the SEC in its insider trading case against Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Although some see the verdict as a setback for the SEC, the Commission needs to bring cases that it believes have merit.

In January, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) lost to the SEC the first director of the new CFTC Whistleblower Office, Vincente Martinez. CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler has announced that he has recruited from the SEC Enforcement Division Christopher Ehrman to lead the CFTC Whistleblower Office’s efforts to attract whistleblowers in the swaps and futures markets.

Mr. Ehrman most recently had been Assistant Director of the SEC’s Office of Market Intelligence. His experience there should serve him well since he “oversaw the processing, review and assignment of all tips, complaints and referrals received by the SEC, ” according to the CFTC’s announcement.

He also served as the Co-National Coordinator for the Microcap Fraud Working Group, which sought to develop “novel ways to detect, disrupt and prosecute fraud relating to securities quoted on the OTC Market.”