At SEC, the system can be deaf to whistleblowing

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eric Kolchinsky was an executive at Moody's, the credit rating company, when he called a top official at the Securities and Exchange Commission in September to warn that his firm might be violating securities law. He reported that Moody's was blessing mortgage-backed investments that it knew were dangerous, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The SEC official assured Kolchinsky that someone from the agency would call him back shortly.

But the call never came, Kolchinsky later told congressional investigators who were examining how the credit rating industry's failures contributed to the financial crisis. He had gone to Congress after losing patience with the SEC.

Kolchinsky is one in a series of whistleblowers who in recent years tried to tip off the SEC to potential wrongdoing, only to be ignored, misunderstood or left to wonder whether they were being listened to. The SEC has no system in place to guide how officials should handle tips and complaints from outsiders, making it difficult for investigators to take advantage of an invaluable source of information.

This failure helped to continue two of the most celebrated frauds of the last decade for several years, potentially costing unwitting investors millions of dollars. Countless others may have been left vulnerable to shysters because of warnings that went unheeded.

Since SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro took office last year, she has said that fixing the holes in the process for handling tips and complaints has been a top priority. But improving the way hundreds of thousands of tips are analyzed and pursued has proven difficult.

The SEC's enforcement division got back in touch with Kolchinsky about his allegations only after he told the story publicly to a congressional committee last fall, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The SEC said it responded to Kolchinsky's concerns but declined to provide details or to say how fast it did so. Moody's said it examined his allegations and found nothing improper.

The SEC has a haphazard, decentralized system for analyzing outsider information. Tips arrive by phone, mail and e-mail to officials throughout the agency -- investor education to enforcement divisions. A study commissioned by the SEC last year and conducted by Mitre, a nonprofit group that does research for the federal government, found that the SEC lacks technology to analyze tips and complaints, as well as cohesive policies for what officials should do when they get information.

Whistleblower complaints are one of the main ways that investigators should be tipped to wrongdoing, SEC officials say, along with inconsistencies in financial filings and alerts from financial exchanges about suspicious trading patterns. But the SEC lags behind some other federal agencies in handling tips. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, pays reward money to whistleblowers who provide credible information about tax fraud. The Federal Trade Commission has set up a call center for tips and complaints.

On top of structural problems at the SEC, agency officials individually made mistakes in handling several recent cases, sometimes violating agency rules.

Members of Schapiro's management team said they recognized problems with the system for handling whistleblowers shortly after taking over.

"There was no uniformity to it. Every division and office had its own system of recording, tracking or handling tips and complaints. That system was pretty rudimentary," said Steve Cohen, the official tasked by Schapiro to overhaul the agency's tips, complaints and whistleblower program. "We're already working to acquire and deploy technology that centralizes all of the agency's tips and complaints so they can be sorted, reviewed, analyzed and tracked."

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