In Christie’s The Blue Geranium a difficult and cantankerous semi-invalid wife is looked after by a succession of nurses. They changed regularly, unable to cope with their patient, with one exception Nurse Copling who somehow managed the tantrums and complaints better than others of her calling. The wife had a predilection for fortunetellers and one announced that the wallpaper in the wife’s room was evil; pronouncing she should “Beware of the Full Moon. The Blue Primrose means warning; the Blue Hollyhock means danger; the Blue Geranium means death.” Four days later, one of the primroses in the pattern of the wallpaper in the wife’s room changed color to blue in the middle of the night, when there had been a full moon.
On the morning after the next full moon, the wife was found dead in her bed with only her smelling salts beside her. Once again Miss Marple has the solution remembering that potassium cyanide resembled smelling salts in odor. The wife took what she thought were smelling salts but was in reality potassium cyanide. The flowers on the wallpaper had been treated with litmus paper which the turned the geranium in question blue, which unmasked the killer.
I found this story to be an interesting way to introduce the topic of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) damage remedies. While some are obvious, such as the fines and penalties which are listed in the text of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), another one, that being profit disgorgement must be seen through the lens of multiple legislations.
The damages that are available to the SEC differ in some significant aspects from those available to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in its enforcement of the criminal side of the FCPA. According to the FCPA Guidance, “For violations of the anti-bribery provisions, corporations and other business entities are subject to a civil penalty of up to $16,000 per violation. Individuals, including officers, directors, stockholders, and agents of companies, are similarly subject to a civil penalty of up to $16,000 per violation, which may not be paid by their employer or principal. For violations of the accounting provisions, SEC may obtain a civil penalty not to exceed the greater of (a) the gross amount of the pecuniary gain to the defendant as a result of the violations or (b) a specified dollar limitation. The specified dollar limitations are based on the egregiousness of the violation, ranging from $7,500 to $150,000 for an individual and $75,000 to $725,000 for a company.”
As straightforward as these monetary amounts may seem, the totals can become very large very quickly. As noted by Russ Ryan in a guest post on the FCPA Professor’s blog, entitled “Former SEC Enforcement Official Throws The Red Challenge Flag”, the SEC significantly multiplied those amounts in a default judgment context against former Siemens executives by claiming that “four alleged bribes should be triple-counted as three separate securities law violations – once as a bribe, again as a books-and-records violation, and yet again as an internal-controls violation – thus artificially multiplying four violations to create twelve.” Further, under the specific books-and-records and internal-controls allegations “the SEC was super aggressive, taking the position that these classically non-fraud violations involved “reckless disregard” of a regulatory requirement, thus allowing the SEC to demand the maximum $60,000 per violation in “second-tier” penalties rather than the $6,000 per violation in the “first-tier” penalties ordinarily associated with non-fraud violations.”
In addition to the above statutory fines and penalties, “SEC can obtain the equitable relief of disgorgement of ill-gotten gains and pre-judgment interest and can also obtain civil money penalties pursuant to Sections 21(d)(3) and 32(c) of the Exchange Act. SEC may also seek ancillary relief (such as an accounting from a defendant). Pursuant to Section 21(d)(5), SEC also may seek, and any federal court may grant, any other equitable relief that may be appropriate or necessary for the benefit of investors, such as enhanced remedial measures or the retention of an independent compliance consultant or monitor.” These remedies can be sought in a federal district court of through the SEC administrative process.
As explained by Marc Alain Bohn, in a blog post on the FCPA Blog entitled “What Exactly is Disgorgement?” profit “Disgorgement is an equitable remedy authorized by the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 that is used to deprive wrong-doers of their ill-gotten gains and deter violations of federal securities law. The Act gives the SEC the authority to enter an order “requiring accounting and disgorgement,” including reasonable interest, as part of administrative or cease and desist proceedings”. In another article Bohn co-authored with Sasha Kalb, entitled “Disgorgement – the Devil You Don’t Know” published in Corporate Compliance Insights (CCI), they set out how such damages are calculated. They said, “In calculating disgorgement, the SEC is required to distinguish between legally and illegally obtained profits. The first step in such calculations is to identify the causal link between the unlawful activity and the profit to be disgorged. Once this causal link is established, the SEC may assert its right to disgorge illicit profits that stem from this wrong-doing. Because calculations like these often prove difficult, courts tend to give the SEC considerable discretion in determining what constitutes an ill-gotten gain by requiring only a reasonable approximation of the profits which are causally connected to the violation.”
However if you read the FCPA quite closely you will not find any language regarding profit disgorgement as a remedy. Nevertheless a simple reading of the statute does not limit our inquiry as to this remedy. In a Note, published in the University of Michigan Journal of International Law, entitled “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, SEC Disgorgement of Profits and the Evolving International Bribery Regime: Weighing Proportionality, Retribution and Deterrence”, author David C. Weiss explained the development of the remedy of profit disgorgement. As noted by Bohn, profit disgorgement was always available to the SEC from the very beginning of its existence, through the enabling legislation of 1934. But as explained by Weiss, in the completely unrelated legislation entitled The Penny Stock Reform Act of 1990, profit disgorgement was “authorized by statute [as a remedy to the SEC] without a limitation to the FCPA.”
Finally, and what many compliance practitioners do not focus on for SEC enforcement of the FCPA, was the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX). Weiss said, “The most recent change to the way in which the SEC enforces the FCPA—and a critical development to consider—is SOX, which affects virtually all of the SEC’s prosecutions, including those under the FCPA. When assessing penalties, the SEC draws on SOX to provide great latitude in determining the types of penalties it enforces. While SOX did not amend the FCPA itself, it did amend both civil and criminal securities laws relating to compliance, internal controls, and penalties for violations of the Exchange Act. Since the enactment of SOX, the SEC has possessed the power to designate how a particular penalty that it assesses will be classified.” [citations omitted]
There has been criticism of the SEC using profit disgorgement as a remedy. As far back as 2010, the FCPA Professor criticized this development in his article “The Façade of FCPA Enforcement” where he found fault with the remedy of profit disgorgement for books and records violations or internal controls violations only, where there is no corresponding “enforcement action charging violations of the anti-bribery provisions.” He wrote “It is difficult to see how a disgorgement remedy premised solely on an FCPA books and records and internal controls case is not punitive. It is further difficult to see how the mis-recording of a payment (a payment that the SEC does not allege violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions) can properly give rise to a disgorgement remedy.”
Bohn and Kalb said, “Over the last six years, disgorgement has served to significantly increase the financial loss that companies are exposed to in FCPA enforcement matters. In addition to the considerable civil penalties often imposed by the SEC as part of FCPA settlements, the SEC has made clear that it will not hesitate to seek recovery of large sums through disgorgement provided they are reasonably related to the alleged misconduct. Yet the methodology used by the SEC to support the amounts it seeks to disgorge has not been much discussed. In the absence of adequate guidance as to how these sums are calculated, disgorgement poses an even greater risk in the current aggressive FCPA enforcement climate.” I would only add to their conclusion that profit disgorgement is here to stay.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015