Introducing a Fresh Perspective on Governance, Risk and Compliance

With the fifth anniversary of Doug’s Note fast approaching (and more than 250 posts and 250,000 reads in the rearview mirror), it seemed like a good time to consider where to go from here. Where, as it turns out, was to create a companion blog devoted to governance, risk and compliance, which are among the hottest issues in corporate America these days. Parker Poe’s GRC Blog reflects the joint contributions of our GRC team, co-led by Jane Lewis-Raymond, former chief compliance officer and general counsel of a large public company, and by me. Together, we provide more than 50 years of experience counseling public and private companies of all shapes and sizes on compliance program design, risk assessment, enterprise risk management, crisis management, remediation and training. Essential to the blog’s success are the contributions of our larger GRC team, which consists of attorneys whose practices focus on such key areas of corporate compliance as: Anti-Bribery & Anti-Corruption Antitrust & Consumer Protection Criminal & Regulatory White Collar Compliance Crisis Management Cybersecurity & Data Privacy Employment Environmental Government Contracting & False Claims Act Compliance Immigration SEC Reporting & Compliance Tax Trade Compliance Our GRC Blog includes insights on such matters as creating a compliance culture, ensuring compliance with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the DOJ’s program evaluation guidance, the interplay of compliance professionals, executive management and boards of directors, balancing GRC goals against the realities of budget and personnel constraints, and a whole lot more. Recent posts include, for example: Take-aways from the recent global ransomware attack (click here), The board of directors’ role in compliance programs (click here) , Where...

Thwarting Shareholder Activism Through Engagement

As the 2017 proxy season draws to a close for most companies, it is obvious that shareholder activism remains alive and well, though the actual number of public activist campaigns appears to have tapered off slightly as compared to recent years. Activism takes many forms, ranging from takeover proxy battles to proxy access proposals to single-issue social welfare proposals. Particularly noteworthy is an apparent trend among institutional investors to target small and mid-size companies, perhaps believing (perhaps correctly) that these companies are ill-prepared to resist their forays. Companies have a wide array of defensive techniques at their disposal, depending on the nature of the activist’s approach, one of which is effective shareholder engagement. The good news is that more and more institutions are welcoming, and even encouraging, engagement with their portfolio companies. And while small and mid-size companies still sometimes struggle to get the attention of major institutions, this has become less problematic now that shareholder engagement is standard practice in corporate America. Although many of the governance benefits of shareholder engagement are widely known, often overlooked is its ability to thwart shareholder activism. Better communication between the company and its major shareholders reduces misunderstandings about management’s strategy or the reasons behind its latest moves. Misunderstandings, in turn, may lead to activism, or a willingness to side with activists. Strong relationships with traditionally non-activist institutional shareholders (by far the larger percentage) have the ability to actually deter activist behavior before it even happens, or to nip it before it gains too much momentum. For example, many activist shareholders own a relatively small percentage of the target company, particularly as compared...

Compliance Program Oversight—The Board’s Overlooked Role

It’s long been axiomatic that an effective compliance program cannot exist without a strong ethics and compliance culture, which in turn requires the proper “tone from the top.” Yet, when most companies think “top,” they think C-suite. After all, tone starts with the CEO, right? And the C-suite is where you find many CCOs, or the executive to whom the CCO directly reports. Also, that’s where decisions are made about staffing the compliance function, allocating funds to implement the program and the host of other operational matters that determine whether the program is robust, minimalistic or non-existent. Often overlooked, however, is the crucial role of the board of directors. Most directors have a general understanding that their fiduciary duties include compliance oversight. After all, it’s been more than 20 years since the Delaware Court of Chancery held in its famous Caremark decision that directors could, in certain circumstances, be determined to have breached their fiduciary duty and, therefore, be liable for company losses due to compliance program failures. Later, the Delaware Supreme Court in Stone v. Ritter held that a director’s failure to implement and oversee aspects of a compliance program could constitute an unindemnifiable breach of the duty of loyalty. But how well do boards really understand their compliance program obligations? And to what extent do many boards devote time and effort to ensuring that their performance would pass muster under the microscope of hindsight when (not if) a compliance breach occurs? Is it enough for them to know that someone in the company has been given the title of CCO? Is it enough to allocate 30 minutes...

A Compliance Calendar Tip: Update for T+2

A few weeks ago, the SEC finalized rules to shorten the standard settlement period for securities transactions from three business days (T+3) to two business days (T+2). Amended Exchange Act Rule 15c6-1(a) will prohibit a broker-dealer from entering into a contract for the purchase or sale of a security (subject to certain exceptions) that provides for payment of funds and delivery of securities later than two business days after the trade date (known as “T”), unless otherwise expressly agreed to by the parties at the time of the transaction. (See this Doug’s Note.) The shift from T+3 to T+2 will be effective on September 5, 2017 to give everyone sufficient time to plan for, implement and test changes to the various systems, policies and procedures necessary for an orderly transition. Most of this preparation burden will, of course, fall on the direct participants in the securities trading industry. However, any company that pays regular cash dividends may need to adjust its annual compliance calendar to accommodate the new rule. Most companies that pay regular cash dividends include these relevant dates in their annual compliance calendars: The date on which the dividend is expected to be declared by the board of directors, The dividend payment date, and The ex-dividend date (the date set by the stock exchanges on which the security’s purchase price no longer reflects the dividend because the trade will settle after the record date). NYSE and NASDAQ rules currently state that shares will trade ex-dividend two business days prior to the dividend record date, which makes sense under the current T+3 timeline. However, the exchanges have now...

Whistleblower Retaliation Remains in the SEC’s Crosshairs

Whistleblower tips and awards for securities law violations have increased dramatically over the past year, according to the staff of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Office of the Whistleblower. Also during that time, the Whistleblower Office has stepped up its vigilance over retaliation by companies against whistleblowers, imposing penalties against companies more frequently and expanding the scope of what constitutes illegal retaliation. Furthermore, there is so far no reason to think the new Trump Administration will seek to reverse this trend. Direct retaliation can take many forms, most of which are recognizable by attentive management. Note, however, that certain less obvious behaviors may also be deemed retaliatory. For example, in one case an employee submitted a complaint about the company’s accounting practices through its internal procedures and to the SEC. When the SEC notified the company of its decision to investigate that complaint, the company was able to determine the whistleblower’s identity and revealed it in an internal email related to the investigation. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Halliburton, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, United States Department of Labor concluded that illegal retaliation had occurred, stating that the “undesirable consequences” of being revealed to one’s colleagues as having accused them of fraud were “obvious.” (See this Doug’s Note.) The SEC has also focused recently on indirect forms of illegal retaliation embedded in company policies and agreements. Provisions in such documents may inadvertently violate Rule 21F-17(a) under the Securities Exchange Act, which provides that: “No person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing,...

Sustainability Reporting Continues to Mature

Several years ago, voluntary sustainability reporting in proxy statements, annual reports to shareholders, websites and special sustainability reports to various stakeholders began to take hold, even as the SEC continued to resist calls for mandatory sustainability reporting and even in the general absence of guidance regarding what to disclose and how. (See this Doug’s Note.) Around the same time, several non-profit organizations formed for the purpose of bringing order to these disclosures. Among them was the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which enjoys a board of directors made up of a particularly distinguished list of executives, investors, professionals and academics, and chaired by Michael Bloomberg. Since then, sustainability reporting has continued to increase in quantity and quality, and SASB has maintained its position as a well-known, respected standard-setter. In keeping with the maturation of these disclosures, SASB recently published an interesting and detailed “staff bulletin” describing its Approach to Materiality for the Purpose of Standards Development. The bulletin explains the SASB’s efforts to align its disclosure standards with existing federal securities law concepts of materiality (as set forth, for example, in TSC Industries v. Northway, Basic v. Levinson and the SEC’s MD&A rules and guidance). It caught my eye because the alignment of mandatory SEC reporting and voluntary sustainability reporting is essential not only to effective disclosure controls and procedures, but also to consistent and meaningful stakeholder communications. Because sustainability issues vary according to a particular industry’s business model, methods of competition, use of resources and impact on society, SASB provides disclosure standards for 79 industries divided into ten industry sectors: Healthcare Financials Technology & Communications Non-renewable Resources Transportation...