Government officials, especially those in SEC Enforcement, have been making noise about the potential for insider trading abuse of Rule 10b5-1 plans since at least 2007, when then-SEC Enforcement Chief Linda Thomsen expressed concern that “executives are taking advantage of a legal safe harbor to sell their stock and profit before their companies report bad news….[A]cademic studies suggest that the rule may be a cover for improper activity, Thomsen said. ‘We’re looking at this hard….If executives are in fact trading on inside information and using a plan for cover, they should expect the ‘safe harbor’ to provide no defense.’” (See this Cooley News Brief.) Now, in 2023, DOJ has unsealed an indictment against Terren Peizer, the executive chair of Ontrak, Inc., representing the first time, according to the press release, that DOJ has brought “criminal insider trading charges based exclusively on an executive’s use of 10b5-1 trading plans.” (Note, however, that the SEC did bring a case last year against executives of Cheetah Mobile related to sales under a purported 10b5-1 trading plan entered into while in possession of material nonpublic information. See this PubCo post.) DOJ charged that Peizer entered into a fraudulent scheme using 10b5-1 plans and engaged in insider trading, both of which charges carry stiff criminal penalties. DOJ said that the FBI is continuing to investigate this case. Not to be completely outdone—although it’s hard not to be outdone by the threat of serious jail time—the SEC has also filed a civil complaint against Peizer, charging that he engaged in insider trading in Ontrak shares using 10b5-1 plans as part of a scheme to evade insider trading prohibitions: when Peizer entered into the plans, the SEC alleged, he was aware of material nonpublic information about the company. As you probably know, to be effective in insulating an insider from potential insider trading liability, the 10b5-1 plan must be established when the insider is acting in good faith and not aware of MNPI. Creating the plan once the insider has learned of MNPI, as alleged in this case, would seem to defeat the whole purpose of the rule—to ensure an even playing field for all investors. The SEC alleged that Peizer sold more than $20 million of Ontrak stock, avoiding more than $12.7 million in losses. At the end of last year, Bloomberg reported that the SEC and DOJ were using data analytics “in a sweeping examination of preplanned equity sales by C-suite officials.” (See this PubCo post.) That effort appears to have paid off in this case; DOJ advises that this investigation was “part of a data-driven initiative led by the Fraud Section to identify executive abuses of 10b5-1 trading plans,” suggesting perhaps that this may not be the last prosecution we will see for abuse of 10b5-1 plans.
On Wednesday, the DOJ announced a new Voluntary Self-Disclosure Policy, which sets out the criteria for determining when a company is deemed to have made a voluntary self-disclosure of misconduct to a US Attorney’s Office and how the company might benefit from a “resolution under more favorable terms.” According to the press release, the policy is intended to provide “transparency and predictability to companies and the defense bar concerning the concrete benefits and potential outcomes in cases where companies voluntarily self-disclose misconduct, fully cooperate, and timely and appropriately remediate. The goal of the policy is to standardize how VSDs are defined and credited by USAOs nationwide, and to incentivize companies to maintain effective compliance programs capable of identifying misconduct, expeditiously and voluntarily disclose and remediate misconduct, and cooperate fully with the government in corporate criminal investigations.”
by Cydney Posner An academic study, first reported by the WSJ, concludes that, in regulatory enforcement actions brought by the SEC and DOJ alleging financial misrepresentation, employee whistleblowers have a consequential impact on regulatory outcomes, increasing the size of penalties, length of prison sentences and duration of the actions. In addition, […]