The new Administration in Washington brings an expectation of change at the SEC in many areas, one of them being SEC Enforcement, where a shift toward more aggressive enforcement is anticipated. That change has already begun. A week ago, Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee restored authority to senior officers in Enforcement to approve the issuance of Formal Orders of Investigation, an action designed to allow senior officers, under delegated authority, to authorize staff to subpoena documents and take sworn testimony. This delegated authority could have the effect of accelerating action by the SEC. And just a couple of days later, Lee, in consultation with Corp Fin, Enforcement and Investment Management, took action to ensure that Enforcement will no longer recommend to the SEC “contingent settlement offers,” that is, settlement offers that are conditioned on the grant of waivers of the automatic disqualification that results from certain securities violations or sanctions. The action was intended “to reinforce the critical separation” between the enforcement process and the consideration of requests for waivers to ensure that the process for “consideration of waivers is forward looking and focused on protecting investors, the market, and market participants from those who fail to comply with the law.” Will the change have any impact?
Remember the clawback provision of SOX 304? That provision provides a reimbursement remedy against CEOs and CFOs when the issuer has restated its financial statements as a result of misconduct. Although the provision was enacted in 2002, it wasn’t until 2007 that an executive was successfully hit with a clawback claim (and a big one it was—the executive returned approximately $600 million in cash and options). And since then, SOX 304 hasn’t gotten all that much of a workout. As reflected in this Order, the SEC has just brought settled charges against the former CEO and CFO of WageWorks Inc., alleging that they made false and misleading statements and omissions, including to the company’s outside audit firm, that led to improper revenue recognition and ultimately resulted in a financial restatement. The settlements with both former executives included reimbursement of incentive-based compensation under SOX 304.
The SEC has just filed a complaint against Sequential Brands Group, Inc., a brand management company, for failing to take timely and appropriate goodwill impairment charges as required by GAAP and the federal securities laws, despite “clear evidence of goodwill impairment” (according to the press release). As a result, the SEC alleges, the company “materially understated its operating expenses and net loss and materially overstated its income from operations, goodwill, and total assets” in its SEC filings, turning “a net loss into income” for financial statement purposes.
SEC brings settled charges against GE for disclosure violations and inadequate accounting and disclosure controls
Right on the heels of the SEC’s action against Cheesecake Factory for misleading public statements regarding its financial performance (see this PubCo post) comes this settled action against General Electric Company—also for misleading public statements about its financial performance. In this action, the SEC alleged that GE failed to provide material information that would have allowed investors to understand how it was generating profits and cash flow in two key segments, power and insurance, the quality of those earnings and the underlying risks. And, as challenges in these segments were later disclosed, the company’s stock price fell almost 75%. As reported in the WSJ, the SEC and DOJ were “investigating GE’s accounting for about two years after the company disclosed large write-downs tied to its insurance business and its power business. The SEC had warned GE in September that it was preparing civil charges, and GE said it had set aside $100 million to resolve the matter.” That reserve turned out to be somewhat optimistic—a bit like some of GE’s insurance reserves—as the final civil penalty was actually $200 million. It’s worth noting here that, as stated in GE’s 8-K regarding the settlement, in its Order, the SEC “makes no allegation that prior period financial statements were misstated. This settlement does not require corrections or restatements of GE’s previously reported financial statements, and GE stands behind its financial reporting.” That is, in the end, the charges were not about funny accounting—even though some might question certain of the judgments—they were about the disclosures about the accounting, the controls over the accounting and the controls over the disclosures.
In its first action against a public company for misleading investors about the financial effects of the pandemic, the SEC has announced settled charges against The Cheesecake Factory. In mid-March, the company, which operates a chain of restaurants, was compelled as a result of COVID-19 to temporarily change its business model from dine-in restaurants to “an ‘off-premise model’ (i.e., to-go and delivery).” The company then issued two press releases (furnished to the SEC on Form 8-K) advising of the transition and indicating that the new model was “enabling the Company’s restaurants to operate sustainably at present under this current model,” but failed to disclose that the claim of sustainable operations excluded expenses attributable to corporate operations as well as the weekly loss of $6 million in cash. Those statements, the SEC concluded, were “materially false and misleading.” According to SEC Chair Jay Clayton, “[a]s our local and national response to the pandemic evolves, it is important that issuers continue their proactive, principles-based approach to disclosure, tailoring these disclosures to the firm and industry-specific effects of the pandemic on their business and operations. It is also important that issuers who make materially false or misleading statements regarding the pandemic’s impact on their business and operations be held accountable.”
Earlier this month, the SEC announced settled charges against former Wells Fargo CEO and Chairman, John G. Stumpf, as well as charges against former head of Wells Fargo’s Community Bank, Carrie L. Tolstedt, alleging that they misled investors about the success of the Community Bank, Wells Fargo’s core business. (Wells had already agreed to pay $3 billion to settle charges from the SEC and the Department of Justice.) The SEC charged that they made misleading public statements about the company’s strategy and a key performance indicator, the “cross-sell metric,” and signed misleading certifications and sub-certifications as to the accuracy of these and other public disclosures. In the Order, Stumpf has agreed to settle the action against him for $2.5 million, but Tolstedt has not agreed to settle, and the SEC has filed a complaint against her in Federal District Court, seeking an officer and director bar, a monetary penalty and disgorgement. The Order and complaint highlight, once again, problems that can arise out of public disclosure of misleading key performance indicators. Moreover, the SEC’s allegations provide a cautionary tale about the responsibility of those signing certifications (and sub-certifications) regarding the accuracy of periodic reports to heed clear alarm bells and question sub-certifications where appropriate to do so.
Commissioners Peirce and Roisman criticize “unduly broad view” of “internal accounting controls” in Andeavor
In October, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Petroleum, in connection with stock repurchases authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. (See this PubCo post.) Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO had directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, Andeavor’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Petroleum to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. After Andeavor’s legal department concluded that the company did not possess material nonpublic information about the acquisition, Andeavor went ahead with the stock repurchase. Rather than attempting to build a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point with allegations that Andeavor had failed to maintain an effective system of internal control procedures in violation of Exchange Act Section 13(b)(2)(B). On Friday, the SEC posted the joint statement of SEC Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman, who voted against the settled action, explaining the reasons for their dissents. In sum, they contend that, in the action, the SEC took an “unduly broad view of Section 13(b)(2)(B).”
If Matt Levine has a mantra in his “Money Stuff” column on Bloomberg, it’s this: everything is securities fraud. “You know the basic idea,” he often says in his most acerbic voice,
“A company does something bad, or something bad happens to it. Its stock price goes down, because of the bad thing. Shareholders sue: Doing the bad thing and not immediately telling shareholders about it, the shareholders say, is securities fraud. Even if the company does immediately tell shareholders about the bad thing, which is not particularly common, the shareholders might sue, claiming that the company failed to disclose the conditions and vulnerabilities that allowed the bad thing to happen. And so contributing to global warming is securities fraud, and sexual harassment by executives is securities fraud, and customer data breaches are securities fraud, and mistreating killer whales is securities fraud, and whatever else you’ve got. Securities fraud is a universal regulatory regime; anything bad that is done by or happens to a public company is also securities fraud, and it is often easier to punish the bad thing as securities fraud than it is to regulate it directly.” (Money Stuff, 6/26/19)
In this rulemaking petition filed by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform and the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, petitioners ask the SEC to take on one aspect of this type of securities litigation—event-driven securities litigation arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will the SEC take action?
A couple of weeks ago, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Oil, in connection with stock repurchases, authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, the company’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Oil to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. Of course, a 10b5-1 plan typically doesn’t work to protect against insider trading charges if you have material inside information when you establish the plan, and the SEC’s order highlights facts that, from the SEC’s perspective, make the information appear material—at least in hindsight. But wait—this isn’t even an insider trading case. No, it’s a case about inadequate internal controls—at least, that’s how it ended up. Instead of attempting to make a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point by focusing on the failure to maintain effective internal control procedures and comply with them. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to emphasize, in the words of SEC Chair Jay Clayton, the practice of “good corporate hygiene.”
Last week, ISS released for public comment a number of proposed voting policy changes to be applied for shareholder meetings taking place on or after February 1, 2021. The proposed changes for U.S. companies relate to board racial/ethnic diversity, director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues and shareholder litigation rights, i.e., exclusive forum provisions. Comments may be submitted on the proposals through October 26, 2020.