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The Hill: Wall Street whistleblowers reap millions

September 13, 2016
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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has paid out more than $100 million in a new whistleblower program aimed at rooting out bad behavior on Wall Street.

The SEC says the program, created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, is beginning to yield valuable information from inside the nation’s largest financial institutions.

“We are getting incredibly good tips,” Jane Norberg, acting director of the SEC’s whistleblower office, told The Hill. “The more we pay awards, the more we encourage those high-quality tips to come in the door.”

Under the program, whistleblowers are encouraged to come forward with information on insider trading, stock price manipulation and other financial crimes.

For insiders, the potential payday is enormous. 

Employees who blow the whistle receive up to 30 percent of the money the government collects from their employer.

The SEC has seized $504 million so far from companies that were exposed through the program.

Last month, the SEC awarded $22 million to a whistleblower who tipped the agency off to fraud. It was the second-largest payout in the program’s history, behind a $30 million reward issued in September 2014.

In total, the SEC has issued more than $107 million in rewards to 33 whistleblowers.

“The SEC is begging for whistleblowers,” said Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for employees who inform on their companies. 

“They’re relying on whistleblowers more and more to regulate the banking industry,” he said.

The SEC has fielded more than 14,000 tips since launching the program in 2011, and the agency says it has seen a steady increase in recent years.

“The whistleblower program is really gathering steam,” said Joel Green, a partner at WilmerHale who advises companies on their whistleblower policies.

“You’re talking about a significant, significant amount of money,” he said. “I think you’re just going to see more and more whistleblowers coming forward.”

The vast majority of whistleblowers don’t make a dime. Though the SEC has issued more than $100 million in payouts, those awards are concentrated among a few dozen employees. Many are still waiting for their payday.

“It’s not a money-making business,” attorney Brian Panish said.

Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, noted that the Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service pay more in whistleblower awards than the SEC.

“Given the amount of fraud on Wall Street, one would expect these numbers should be much higher,” Kohn said.

Wall Street companies are well aware of the SEC’s tipster line. It has forced many of them to take action internally to avoid a confrontation with the SEC.

“They have certainly gotten the attention of corporate America,” said Gregory Keating, a partner at Choate, Hall, and Stewart, which represents management. 

“They’re looking for any opportunity to flex their muscles.”

For years, whistleblowers feared retaliation and doubted whether their employers took their complaints seriously. Experts say companies should establish more transparent whistleblower polices so that employees come to them first.

The question of whether employees have an obligation to raise issues with their employers before coming to the SEC is hotly debated.

Management attorneys argue that employers should be given the benefit of the doubt, saying that companies can’t fix a problem unless they know about it. But whistleblower advocates say employees should have the choice to go to SEC first if they want.

“Turning over the evidence to the wrongdoer first provides them with an opportunity to cover it up,” Clark said.

Whistleblowers who participate in the SEC’s program are not required to report concerns to their companies first, but those who do are eligible for bigger rewards.

“Most whistleblowers are absolutely not motivated by the money,” said Clark. “It’s sort of the icing on the cake. The strongest motivation is that they know they’ll be taken seriously and the risks they take will make a difference.”

Author: 
Tim Devaney
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