ATTORNEY: Francis P. McConville
POMERANTZ MONITOR, MARCH/APRIL 2015
Pomerantz will take the helm on a consolidated group of securities class actions over revelations of rampant corruption at Petroleo Brasileiro SA (“Petrobras”), according to an order issued March 4, 2015 by New York U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff. We were selected as lead counsel by lead plaintiff Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd. (“USS”).
USS was chosen over three other candidates for lead plaintiff: the SKAGEN-Danske group, made up of three European asset managers; a group of three State Retirement Systems; and an individual investor.
The class action against Petrobras, brought on behalf of all purchasers of common and preferred American Depositary Shares (“ADSs”) on the New York Stock Exchange, as well as purchasers of certain Petrobras debt, principally alleges that Petrobras and its senior executives engaged in a multi-year, multi-billion dollar money-laundering and bribery scheme, which was, of course, concealed from investors. Senior management has openly admitted its culpability. In testimony released by a Brazilian federal court, the executive in charge of Petrobras’ refining division confessed that Petrobras accepted bribes “from companies to whom Petrobras awarded inflated construction contracts” and “then used the money to bribe politicians through intermediaries to guarantee they would vote in line with the ruling party while enriching themselves.” These illegal acts caused the company to overstate assets on its balance sheet, because the overstated amounts paid on inflated third party contracts were carried as assets on the balance sheet.
As of November 2014, the Brazilian Federal Police had arrested at least 24 suspects in connection with Petrobras’ money laundering and bribery schemes; and Brazil’s president, who was a senior Petrobras executive during the relevant period, has also been engulfed in this scandal. As a result of the fraudulent scheme, Petrobras may be forced to book a $30 billion asset writedown in order to reduce the carrying value of some of its assets. That impairment would equal approximately 42% of the company’s market value.
USS was not the lead plaintiff applicant with the largest losses from the fraud. Indeed, the SKAGEN-Danske group, with purported losses exceeding $222 million, asserted by far the largest losses of all the competing lead plaintiff applicants. However, although the securities laws establish a rebuttable presumption in favor of the appointment as lead plaintiff of the movant with the “largest financial interest” in the litigation, that movant must also “otherwise sastisf[y] the requirements of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” under the Private Securities Law Reform Act (“PSLRA”).
In particular, USS and Pomerantz argued that the SKAGENDanske and State Retirement Systems were artificial groupings put together by counsel trying to win the lead counsel position, and were plagued by numerous deficiencies rendering them inadequate to represent the Class. Although the PSLRA states that a lead plaintiff may be a “group of persons,” to allow an aggregation of unrelated plaintiffs (asset managers and pension funds, in this instance) to serve as lead plaintiffs defeats the purpose of preventing lawyer-driven litigation. In stark contrast, USS, the largest pension fund as measured by assets in London, opted to move for appointment as sole lead plaintiff, in order to allow it full and independent control of its counsel and the prosecution of the litigation. In fact, prior to engaging the Pomerantz firm, USS spent over 50 hours of in-house attorney time determining whether to step forward as lead plaintiff. To assist its decision making process, USS retained outside counsel at its own expense to assist it in deciding whether to enter the action.
Moreover, the record in this case demonstrated that the SKAGEN-Danske Group – with SKAGEN showing a net gain on Petrobras common ADSs – had interests that could be deemed antagonistic to purchasers of Petrobras common ADSs. In this case, the large losers in Petrobras preferred ADSs, such as the SKAGEN-Danske Group, potentially have interests antagonistic to common ADS purchasers because of the unique qualities of each security and the potential threats facing the capital structure of Petrobras. USS, with the single largest losses of PBR common ADSs among the various lead plaintiff movants, thus presented the court with an attractive and safe option for potential lead plaintiff.
At bottom, USS argued that it was the ideal plaintiff envisioned by Congress when it enacted the PSLRA. No other movant had demonstrated the willingness and ability to adequately oversee counsel and vigorously prosecute the claims against Petrobras on behalf of the Class. Critically, USS was the only movant not overwhelmed by various inadequacies and unique defenses. Nor did USS have any ties to potentially relevant political contributions or curious arrangements with counsel, which have heretofore afflicted the alternative lead plaintiff groupings.
Accordingly, the independence and diligence evidenced by USS and Pomerantz during the lead plaintiff process ultimately paid off. As articulated during the briefing process, USS’s conduct represented the “gold standard” for institutional oversight of proposed lead counsel, and represents the model for institutional investors seeking to file future applications for appointment as lead plaintiff in securities class actions.