Pomerantz Monitor, November/December 2013
The Whistleblower Bounty Program created by the Dodd-Frank Act mandates that the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) pay significant financial rewards to individuals who voluntarily provide the agency with original information about securities law violations. If the information provided leads to a successful enforcement action resulting in $1 million or more in sanctions, the whistleblower may receive between 10 and 30% of the sanctions collected. The SEC is required to maintain confidential treatment and anti-retaliation measures for tipsters.
In a report issued by the SEC staff on November 15, the agency reported that it had received 3,238 tips in fiscal 2013, and had paid out $14.8 million in whistleblower awards that year, $14 million of which went to a single tipster in an award announced on October 1. In announcing the award, SEC Chair Mary Jo White stated that “Our whistleblower program already has had a big impact on our investigations by providing us with high quality, meaningful tips…. We hope an award like this encourages more individuals with information to come forward.”
As more investigations are resolved, observers expect that more and greater awards will be granted. Currently, the SEC has over $400 million available for the program.
While this program is new, it may ultimately supplement securities class actions in two important ways. The fundamental purpose of the Whistleblower program is to detect fraud. Unlike the basic purpose of securities class actions – to deter and hopefully monetarily punish fraud – the Whistleblower program incentivizes tipsters to come forward with information to the SEC – thus improving fraud detection. Generally, both corporate insiders (those with independent knowledge of misconduct from non-public sources) and corporate outsiders (those who detect misconduct through independent analysis and investigation of publicly available data) are incentivized to tip information to the SEC.
Opponents of the program insist that, because the monetary incentives are so high, whistleblowers will turn first to the SEC before disclosing problems internally to obtain corrective action. However, SEC rules seek to preserve the attractiveness of internal reporting, and the SEC reports that most whistleblowers who have come forward since the program’s inception used internal channels of resolution before turning to the SEC. In addition, the SEC has indicated that its standard practice involves contacting the involved corporation directly upon receipt of a tip, describing the allegations, and giving the firm a chance to investigate the matter internally. On balance, the deterrent and detection benefits of the program, coupled with the SEC’s measures to encourage initial internal reporting, outweigh any incentive to simply run to the SEC first on the chance that a tip will result in a large reward.