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.
Failure to disclose perks seems to be a fairly attractive target for SEC Enforcement these days. In another fiscal year-end action, Enforcement has charged Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. with failure to disclose in its proxy statements various perks and personal benefits provided to its executive officers. This action has the distinction of being the result of the staff’s use of risk-based data analytics to uncover potential violations related to corporate perks. The case serves as a reminder that the analysis of whether a benefit is a disclosable perk can be complicated and is not the same as the “business purpose” test used for tax purposes.
Crest v. Padilla redux—AB 979, California’s board diversity law for “underrepresented communities,” faces taxpayer challenge
It didn’t take long. Crest v. Padilla (see this PubCo post), now has a sequel, Crest v. Padilla II. You might recall that, shortly after SB 826, California’s board gender diversity bill, was signed into law, three California taxpayers challenged the new law, filing Crest v. Alex Padilla I in California state court, seeking to prevent implementation and enforcement of SB 826. With AB 979 signed into law just last week (see this PubCo post), the same three plaintiffs have now filed a similar lawsuit challenging this new law on essentially the same basis. AB 979 requires boards of public companies, including foreign corporations with principal executive offices located in California, to include specified numbers of directors from “underrepresented communities.” Framed as a “taxpayer suit” much like Crest v. Padilla I, the litigation seeks to enjoin Alex Padilla, the California Secretary of State, from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources to enforce or implement the law, alleging that the law’s mandate is an unconstitutional quota and violates the California constitution.
Enforcement has certainly been busy at the end of the SEC’s fiscal year, with disclosure violations receiving their fair of attention. In this action against HP Inc., the company was charged with failing to disclose known trends and uncertainties regarding the impact of sales and inventory practices, as well as failure to maintain adequate disclosure controls and procedures. HP was ordered to pay a penalty of $6 million.