By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007
The Securities and Exchange Commission is changing how it negotiates settlements with companies in a way that could reduce the number and size of financial penalties that businesses pay, current and former officials said yesterday.
Under the change, which has not been made public, SEC enforcement lawyers must seek approval from the agency's five commissioners before they begin settlement talks that involve fining corporations, including seeking ranges for possible fines. Currently, staff members have the authority to negotiate with businesses and draft settlements in principle before they take the deals to the agency leaders for final approval.
The shift marks the latest development in a heated debate over whether companies or individual wrongdoers should bear the brunt of blame for legal violations. Penalties reached record proportions after destructive scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia Communications, creating concern among some commissioners that enforcement staff members are overreaching.
The initiative comes at the behest of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, a former Republican lawmaker from California who is striving to avoid split votes at the agency. The pilot program will affect a relatively small percentage of cases and will result in more productive and fast-tracked negotiations between business and enforcers, according to spokesman John Nester. The plan, Nester said, "will increase investor protection because it will give our enforcement division a stronger hand in settlement negotiations."
The enforcement division was criticized by trade groups last month as "adversarial" and "overly punitive." Republican Commissioner Paul S. Atkins has argued that imposing fines against businesses in many circumstances unduly penalizes their stockholders. Rather, he and allies say, corporate executives who broke the law should pay the price.
Disagreement over the issue has slowed resolution of several cases, including some involving more than 160 companies that engaged in backdating of stock options for officials and employees. For example, staff members are continuing to deliberate whether Brocade Communications Systems, whose former chief executive was charged last year with criminal fraud, must shell out money for backdating offenses.
After months of behind-the scenes negotiations, Cox unveiled a policy statement in January 2006 laying out analytical steps the SEC would follow in deciding whether to levy penalties against businesses. Since then, the commission at times has sent the enforcement unit back to the drawing board in cases against Veritas Software and MBIA, among others, frustrating businesses and defense lawyers who seek quicker resolution of investigations.
The new policy on settlements is designed to prevent disconnects between SEC staff members and the commissioners. But the change is also contributing to lowered morale within the enforcement unit, which swelled in financial resources and prestige after widespread accounting frauds came to light five years ago.
Since that time, the enforcement budget has flattened and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, has called on SEC leaders to appoint an advisory panel to scrutinize the enforcement division's fairness.
Some staff members are balking at the change as a show of distrust in their judgment and another layer of red tape that could reduce the frequency and the size of financial penalties. But officials asserted yesterday that Cox and enforcement unit leaders are on the same page.
Details of the plan continue to be worked out, agency officials said.