On Tuesday, SEC Commissioner Caroline Crenshaw spoke to the Council of Institutional Investors. Her presentation, Moving Forward Together—Enforcement for Everyone, concerned “the central role enforcement plays in fulfilling our mission, how investors and markets benefit, and how a decision made 15 years ago has taken us off course.” In her view, the SEC should revisit its approach to assessing financial penalties and should not be reluctant to impose appropriately tailored penalties that effectively deter misconduct, irrespective of the impact on the wrongdoer’s shareholders. Is this a sign of things to come?
On Friday of last week, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint charging AT&T, Inc. and three of its Investor Relations executives with violations of Reg FD as a result of one-on-one disclosures of AT&T’s “projected and actual financial results” to a number of Wall Street research analysts by the three executives. In March 2016, the SEC alleges, AT&T learned that, as a result of a “steeper-than-expected decline in smartphone sales,” AT&T’s first quarter revenues would fall short of analysts’ estimates by over a $1 billion. The three IR executives were then asked to contact the analysts whose estimates were too high to “walk” them down. This case illustrates the tightrope that IR personnel walk when talking one-on-one with analysts in the context of Reg FD.
Last week, Allison Lee, Acting Chair of the SEC, directed the staff of Corp Fin to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings.” Yesterday, the SEC announced that the new climate focus would not be limited to Corp Fin—the SEC has created a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. According to the press release, the initial focus of the Task Force will be to identify any material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ disclosure of climate risks under existing rules, giving us all another reason to excavate the staff’s 2010 interpretive guidance regarding climate change. (You may recall that the guidance addressed in some detail how existing disclosure obligations, such as the Reg S-K requirements for business narrative and risk factors, could apply to climate change. See this PubCo post.) Apparently, however, the remit of the Task Force goes beyond climate to address other ESG issues. Lee said that the Task Force is designed to bolster the efforts of the SEC as a whole in addressing climate risk and sustainability, which “are critical issues for the investing public and our capital markets.”
Disclosure of executive perks is once again in the SEC Enforcement spotlight. Just last year, there were two actions against companies for disclosure failures regarding perks—Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. (see this PubCo post). Now, Enforcement has brought settled charges against Gulfport Energy Corporation, a gas exploration and production company that filed for Chapter 11 in November, and its former CEO, Michael G. Moore, for failure to disclose some of the perks provided to Moore as well as related-person transactions involving Moore’s son. The case serves as a reminder that the analysis of whether a benefit is a disclosable perk can be complicated.
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.