SEC Stakes Ground: Internal Reporting Triggers Whistleblower Protections

Jordan Thomas - Wednesday, August 19, 2015
In addition to the case we described in an earlier post, in which the Commission filed an amicus brief on behalf of an internal whistleblower, in a significant move to protect whistleblowers at large, this month the SEC issued interpretive guidance to clarify that Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions apply equally to those whistleblowers who report potential violations internally.

The SEC’s expansive view on whistleblower protections essentially confirms that to qualify for Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation protections, a whistleblower may report potential violations to the SEC directly or internally through an employer’s compliance channels. According to the SEC, the clarification “avoids a two-tiered structure of employment retaliation protection that might discourage some individuals from first reporting internally in appropriate circumstances and, thus, jeopardize the investor-protection and law-enforcement benefits that can result from internal reporting.”

While many organizations work hard to build credible ethical cultures, over the last few years, we have witnessed increasing efforts by some organizations to dismantle and deter the landmark reforms of Dodd-Frank. Indeed, through the use of secrecy agreements, legal bullying, and the creation of omerta cultures, some companies aggressively discourage whistleblowers from reporting misconduct.

This must stop.

Last year, we, along with the Government Accountability Project and 250 other organizations, submitted a petition urging the SEC to, among other things, engage in rule-making to clarify and strengthen whistleblower protections. By issuing this guidance on internal reporting, the SEC has sent a clear message that it will do just that. We applaud this action by the SEC and its clear aim to protect and encourage whistleblowers.

SEC Sides With Corporate Whistleblower on Key Issue of Protection

Jordan Thomas - Friday, August 14, 2015
In an important case for whistleblower advocacy, last week, the SEC filed an amicus brief in California federal court contending that employees need not report misconduct directly to the government to qualify for whistleblower protection under Dodd-Frank. The underlying case involves a lawsuit filed by the former general counsel of Bio-Rad Technologies Inc. who claimed that he was terminated after voicing concerns about potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The company ultimately paid $55 million to settle the SEC’s charges.

While courts have generally sided with the SEC holding that a whistleblower need not report misconduct directly to a government agency to qualify for the anti-retaliation protections afforded by Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley, in 2013, a federal appeals court ruled the other way. In all likelihood, the question of what triggers whistleblower protections will be an issue of ongoing debate in the courts that may go to the highest court in the land.

In many ways, this case and those like it are almost academic battles that will ultimately establish key legal precedent. So what’s a whistleblower to do? The key takeaway from the Bio-Rad matter is that individuals who wish to report misconduct would be wise to consider an early or simultaneous report to the SEC to assure eligibility for the protections guaranteed by statute to all whistleblowers.  Even a cursory filing of original information may be sufficient. In the long run, corporate compliance programs are a critical first line of defense against corporate wrongdoing. But for those defenses to work, whistleblowers must be encouraged and protected when they use them.

Historic Survey Sounds the Alarm: We’re Losing the Ethical Battle, Wall Street

Jordan Thomas - Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Together with the University of Notre Dame, today we released the findings of a collaborative and historic survey of financial services professionals across the U.S. and UK. The Street, The Bull and The Crisis is the most expansive analysis of its kind, probing the ethical views of a broad spectrum of the industry, from young professionals to senior executives, investment bankers, and investment managers, from San Francisco to Scotland.

Despite sweeping reform efforts and headline-making consequences of corporate misconduct, the findings make clear that attitudes toward corruption within the industry have not changed for the better. Indeed, nearly half those polled find it likely that their competitors have engaged in misconduct in order to gain an edge in the market. On an individual level, 32 percent of professionals with less than a decade in the business would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it. That’s twice the figure (14 percent) for employees with more than two decades in the industry. What does this mean for the future of the industry and how will it impact the fragile confidence of investors?

We are most concerned by findings relating to the widespread use of secrecy policies and agreements—a full 25 percent of individuals earning $500,000+ per annum have been asking to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prohibit reporting illegal or unethical activities to the authorities. As federal agencies and Congress has made clear, corporate entities cannot obstruct an individual’s fundamental right to freely engage with his or her government.

For more information on our findings, please see the full report here or see select highlights in this infographic.

An Untenable Silence: Confidentiality Agreements Examined & Exposed

Jordan Thomas - Thursday, April 02, 2015

Yesterday, the SEC announced a landmark enforcement action against engineering giant KBR for its use of confidentiality agreements that required individuals to obtain prior approval from the company’s legal department before discussing matters with outside parties…or face discipline and possible termination. This action sends a powerful message to companies that have sought to silence whistleblowers. Indeed, the proliferation of gag orders is a scourge on corporate culture, a threat to financial reform, if not democracy itself.

We have been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to protect truth tellers and, by extension, encourage open and transparent cultures at organizations across the United States and abroad. Last summer, I addressed the dangers of these gag orders in an article I drafted  together with the Government Accountability project for the New York Times Dealbook. The op-ed followed on the heels of our work to assemble a coalition of organizations, which represented millions of citizens, petitioning the SEC to address the issue of silencing and retaliating against employees who speak out against wrongdoing. 

In addition to these grassroots efforts, we have also addressed the more substantive issues at play in such employment agreements. In a recent article in the ABA Journal of Labor & Employment Law, the authoritative publication for workplace issues, together with Professor Richard Moberly and fellow attorney Jason Zuckerman, I examine the legality and enforceability of employment agreements that effectively undermine the crucial investor protection efforts established by the Dodd-Frank Act.

We remain steadfast in our belief that in this country, individuals have an unwaivable right to report wrongdoing to the government. And we will continue our work to protect this right and those courageous individuals who stand up to corruption.

SEC Issues Whistleblower Award to Former Company Officer

Jordan Thomas - Tuesday, March 03, 2015
In a landmark action that demonstrated the strength and reach of the SEC whistleblower program, the agency announced a sizable bounty to a former company officer, a Labaton Sucharow client, who provided law enforcement with key information about a securities fraud that resulted in a successful enforcement action. What makes this matter so unique is the fact that corporate officers are typically ineligible for awards. Typically. Among other exceptions, if a company had knowledge of a possible securities violation and compliance or other responsible parties failed to act within 120 days of learning of the misconduct, a company officer may come forward. This marks the first time the SEC issued an award in such a matter. Most importantly, this matter shows the remarkable power of the program to embolden high-level insiders to come forward and take a stand against corporate wrongdoing.

Location, Location, Location: The Geography of an SEC Whistleblower

Jordan Thomas - Tuesday, November 18, 2014
In the SEC’s report to Congress, just released today, the agency documented the tremendous success of its revolutionary investor protection initiative. As we peel back the layers of the report, we note some startling findings with respect to the origin of whistleblower submissions. First and foremost, the program’s international reach is inarguable. This year’s largest award — more than $30 million! — came from a foreign tipster. And, of all 14 awards issued by the SEC to date, four were awarded to whistleblowers outside the U.S. This year, the agency received tips from 60 different international jurisdictions, with the UK, India, Canada, China, and Australia chief among these. Within the U.S., submissions came from every state in the union. The busiest states for whistleblowers in FY2014? California, Florida, Texas, and New York. How this stacks up to 2013 submissions is particularly interesting: submissions from California jumped by 48%; Florida by 41%; Texas by 54%; and New York, which fell from 2nd to 4th place, actually recorded a 5% drop in submissions. To view the SEC report in its entirety, please see here.

Historic Year for Whistleblowers, Report Confirms

Jordan Thomas - Tuesday, November 18, 2014
The SEC Office of the Whistleblower has just released its report to Congress chronicling the program’s success over the last year. The data is extremely encouraging, serving as an apt reminder that a quiet revolution in law enforcement is underway, powered by whistleblowers who dare to speak out against misconduct. Highlights from this year’s report include 3,620 whistleblower tips - an increase of more than 20% in the number of tips in just two years. The SEC made 9 whistleblower awards in FY2014, the largest of which exceeded $30 million. The balance of the Investor Protection Fund at the close of the fiscal year was an astonishing $437 million! Tips came in from every state in the union and 60 countries, including a significant number of submissions from the UK, India, Canada and China. The report also highlighted the Agency’s new muscle, flexed in its case against Paradigm Capital (where I represented the whistleblower), in which the SEC used its new authority to bring anti-retaliation cases against entities seeking to undermine whistleblowers.

Video: Whistleblower Tour Takes Manhattan

Jordan Thomas - Thursday, November 13, 2014
If you missed the NYC stop on the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblower Tour last month, you’re in luck. Baruch has shared a fantastic recording of the panel on which I was honored to speak alongside Enron Whistleblower Sherron Watkins, Jon Oberg, Louis Clark and Jennifer Pacella.

American Whistleblowers Live at Baruch from kokobaz on Vimeo.

Law360 Minority Powerbroker Series

Jordan Thomas - Thursday, November 06, 2014
This week, I was honored to participate in Law360’s Minority Powerbroker Series. As I formulated my answers to five pivotal questions at the crossroads of race and professional development, I had time to reflect on the many colleagues and friends along the way who have been so supportive of my individual efforts. This made for a very rewarding Q&A! Please feel free to see the full article here.

Top Lawmakers Urge SEC to Protect Whistleblowers

Jordan Thomas - Thursday, October 30, 2014
This week, eight leading Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform and House Financial Services Committees sent a letter to SEC Chair Mary Jo White calling on the Commission to ensure corporations do not enact measures meant to stymie whistleblowers. The letter pointed to a recent Washington Post article, which outlined numerous ways companies have restricted employees from reporting misconduct.

The letter echoes concerns that we, along with the Government Accountability Project, first raised in a July Op-Ed in the New York Times DealBook. Along with GAP and 250 other organizations, we have submitted a petition, urging the SEC to hold a series of hearings around the country to discuss the problem of workplace retaliation and explore new ways to increase reporting, internally and externally. It also asks the agency to create an advisory committee on whistleblower reporting and protection; to recommend program improvements and best practices; and engage in appropriate rule-making to clarify and strengthen whistleblower protections. This is a serious issue and we are glad Congress has taken notice of our efforts.

Please feel free to view the petition here - and, as always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.


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Website Editor &
SEC Whistleblower Advocate

Jordan A. Thomas jthomas@labaton.com

212-907-0836

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