Fiscal 2015 was arguably the most successful year in the short history of the whistleblower program at the Securities & Exchange Commission: In the 12 months ended September 30, almost 4,000 tips were received from whistleblowers around the world — a record number — and more than $37 million was paid out in rewards.
The whistleblower program was created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010: Under the statute, people who report securities violations may be eligible for a reward if the SEC uses their information to recover more than $1 million for taxpayers.
The 2015 tallies are reported in the SEC program’s new annual report. Beyond the monetary rewards being paid to whistleblowers, the report highlights a number of steps taken by the SEC to help insiders who share information about corporate wrongdoing.
Dow Chemical Company, a multinational corporation headquartered in Midland, Michigan, settled a case with a former employee, Kimberly Wood, who alleged that Dow terminated her in retaliation for blowing the whistle on it and its CEO Andrew Liveris’s improper spending and other financial wrongdoing.
Wood, a fraud investigator at Dow, alleged that Dow and Liveris violated Securities and Exchange Commission rules by exceeding the budget for a project by $13 million; paying for numerous unreported personal expenses for Liveris (including family trips to the Super Bowl, World Cup, and Masters Tournament); making payments, at the direction of Liveris, to certain charities, including Liveris’s own charity; excessive use of a corporate jet; improperly hiding cost overruns; and engaging in financial statement fraud.
On October 9, 2013, Wood reported an instance of financial statement fraud. The very next day, Dow notified Wood that it would terminate her employment by the end of the month. Wood sued Dow, alleging that it retaliated against her because of her protected activity in violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), 18 U.S.C. § 1514A. Under SOX, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who report certain illegal or unethical conduct. Employees are also protected when making disclosures about shareholder fraud or violations of any SEC rules and regulations.
In December 2014, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied Dow’s motion to dismiss Wood’s complaint. In its ruling, the Court held that SOX plaintiffs need not allege actual management knowledge of protected activity—it’s enough to allege sufficient facts from which such knowledge may be reasonably inferred. At that time the court denied its motion to dismiss, Dow said that it would defend its case “vigorously.” But just two months later, in February 2015, the parties announced that they reached an amicable settlement. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
On February 26, 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced plans to introduce state legislation to protect and reward employees who report information about illegal activity in the banking, insurance, and financial services industries.
Schneiderman’s proposal, titled the Financial Frauds Whistleblower Act, would create a state-level equivalent of the federal Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act. The Dodd-Frank Act provides financial incentives and anti-retaliation protections to whistleblowers who report fraud in the financial services industry.
While a number of states have whistleblower programs modeled after the federal False Claims Act, the Financial Frauds Whistleblower Act would be the first state-level equivalent of the Dodd-Frank Act, which created the whistleblower programs at U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Schneiderman’s proposal would also address the limitations on awards imposed by federal law. Under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA), rewards to whistleblowers who report financial crime are capped at $1.6 million.
The Financial Frauds Whistleblower Act would compensate whistleblowers whose information leads to action by the state’s banking and insurance regulator, the New York Department of Financial Services—providing the potential for large awards.
The legislation has yet to pass the New York State legislature.
In its recent FY 2016 Budget Request, the Securities and Exchange Commission touted the success of its Whistleblower Program and proposed increased funding for the program to help with an increased workload caused by a surge in whistleblower tips. The SEC’s Enforcement Division, in the 2016 Budget Request, revealed that it had received approximately 3,600 tips in FY 2014 through the Whistleblower Program, the largest number of tips ever received by the SEC. The SEC also reported in its request that it had granted the largest number of rewards in its history to whistleblowers in 2014.
Under the SEC’s Whistleblower Program, a whistleblower may receive a reward of between 10 and 30 percent of penalties collected by the SEC if the whistleblower provides information leading to a penalty of $1,000,000 or more. In fact, in September 2014, the SEC announced a reward of more than $30 million to a whistleblower.
The Budget Request praises the effectiveness of the program, stating, “Whistleblowers can often provide high-quality information that allows the Division to more quickly and efficiently detect and investigate alleged violations of the law.” The Request predicts that the surge in rewards, including the September 2014 reward of more than $30 million, will spur more tips and ultimately allow the Enforcement Division to “bring enforcement actions against violators where it would otherwise have not had sufficient information to do so.” The SEC proposes increased funding to hire more staff to handle the increased workload.
The Request demonstrates the success of the Program in protecting investors by ensuring a fair marketplace. It also shows the tangible impact that encouraging whistleblower activity has had in advancing the SEC’s mission. Finally, the Request’s proposal for additional funding, if approved, will allow the SEC’s Whistleblower Program to investigate more tips and prosecute wrongdoing more quickly and efficiently, and to reward more whistleblowers for providing important information to the government.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority — a self-policing arm of the securities industry — reminded its member firms not to ask their employees to sign confidentiality agreements that forbid reporting possible wrongdoing to FINRA itself, or to industry regulators such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
FINRA may discipline firms that add such provisions to agreements with their employees, it said in a new regulatory notice. FINRA also said that any language that bars employees from sharing certain documents outside their firm can’t stop employees from giving the same documents to regulators.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said it awarded more than $300,000 to a whistleblower who first reported wrongdoing internally — but then went to the feds after being ignored for four months.
The SEC typically doesn’t reveal details about the people who receive awards under the Dodd-Frank Act, since the law grants confidentiality to whistleblowers, but the agency said this was its first-ever payout to a person who worked in a company’s audit or compliance areas.