On October 15, 2021, the SEC announced that it awarded $40M to two whistleblowers. According to the order, both whistleblowers provided original information to the SEC that led to a successful enforcement action and provided extensive assistance during the SEC’s investigation. The first whistleblower received an award of approximately $32 million and the second received an award of approximately $8 million. Why did one whistleblower receive an award that is four times greater than the award provided to the second whistleblower? And what can prospective whistleblowers learn from this award determination?
Although the SEC’s order is appropriately sparse (to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers), it offers some important reasons for the disparity in the two awards:
- The first whistleblower reported promptly and provided a tip that caused the SEC to open an investigation.
- The second whistleblower provided important new information during the course of the investigation and was a valuable first-hand witness, but waited several years to report to the SEC. Due to the unreasonable delay in reporting the violations, the SEC reduced the second whistleblowers’ award percentage.
- Both whistleblowers provided extensive, ongoing cooperation that helped the SEC to stop the wrongdoing, but the first whistleblower provided the information that enabled the SEC to devise an investigative plan and craft its initial document requests. The first whistleblower also “made persistent efforts to remedy the issues, while suffering hardships.”
Lessons for Prospective SEC Whistleblowers
Early Bird Gets the Worm
To be eligible for an award, a whistleblower must first submit “original information.” Original information can be derived from independent knowledge (facts known to the whistleblower that are not derived from publicly available sources) or independent analysis (evaluation of information that may be publicly available but which reveals information that is not generally known). A prospective whistleblower who delays reporting a violation risks becoming ineligible for an award (another whistleblower may come forward first).
And an unreasonable delay in reporting a violation may cause the SEC to reduce an award. In making this determination, the SEC considers:
- whether the whistleblower failed to take reasonable steps to report the violation or prevent it from occurring or continuing;
- whether the whistleblower was aware of the violation but reported to the SEC only after learning of an investigation into the misconduct;
- whether the violations identified by the whistleblower were continuing during the period of delay;
- whether investors were being harmed during that time; and
- whether the whistleblower might profit from the delay by ultimately obtaining a larger award because the failure to report permitted the misconduct to continue, resulting in larger monetary sanctions.
According to OWB Guidance for Whistleblower Award Determinations, one or more of these circumstances, in the absence of significant mitigating factors, would likely cause the SEC to recommend a substantially lower award amount.
Common reasons that weigh against determining that a delay was unreasonable include:
- the whistleblower engaging for a reasonable period of time in an internal reporting process;
- the delay being reasonably attributable to an illness or other personal or family circumstance; and
- the whistleblower spending a reasonable amount of time attempting to ascertain relevant facts or obtain an attorney in order to remain anonymous.
The significant disparity between the two awards announced on October 14th underscores why whistleblowers should report promptly.
A Whistleblower Can Qualify for an Award for Assisting with an Open investigation
Even though the second whistleblower delayed a few years reporting the violation to the SEC and came forward when the SEC already commenced an investigation, the whistleblower received an award for providing information and documents, participating in staff interviews, and providing the staff a more complete picture of how events from an earlier period impacted the company’s practices. That result underscores how the SEC’s whistleblower rules permit the SEC to pay awards to whistleblowers that provide information in an existing investigation. In other words, the fact that the SEC has already commenced an investigation should not cause a prospective whistleblower to forego providing a tip to the SEC.
A whistleblower can qualify for an award if their tip “significantly contributes” to the success of an SEC enforcement action, including where the information causes staff to (i) commence an examination, (ii) open or reopen an investigation, or (iii) inquire into different conduct as part of a current SEC examination or investigation, and the SEC brings a successful judicial or administrative action based in whole or in part on conduct that was the subject of the individual’s original information.
In determining whether an individual’s information significantly contributed to an enforcement action, the SEC considers factors such as whether the information allowed the SEC to bring the action in significantly less time or with significantly fewer resources, additional successful claims, or successful claims against additional individuals or entities.
Whistleblowers are Welcome at the SEC
The SEC issued this $40M award shortly after announcing that it reached a milestone of paying $1B in awards to whistleblowers under the Dodd-Frank SEC whistleblower program. As of October 14, 2021, the SEC has awarded approximately $1.1B to 218 individuals.
Since assuming the position of SEC Chair earlier this year, Gary Gensler has made several public statements and taken specific actions that suggest that he is a strong proponent of the SEC whistleblower program and is determined to utilize the program to detect, investigate, and prosecute violations of the securities laws. When the SEC announced that it paid $1B in awards, Chair Gensler stated, “The assistance that whistleblowers provide is crucial to the SEC’s ability to enforce the rules of the road for our capital markets.”
And in remarks for the National Whistleblower Day Celebration, Chair Gensler stated:
The tips, complaints, and referrals that whistleblowers provide are crucial to the Securities and Exchange Commission as we enforce the rules of the road for our capital markets . . . the whistleblower program helps us to be better cops on the beat, execute our mission, and protect investors from misconduct . . . Investors in our capital markets have benefited from the critical information provided by whistleblowers. . . . We must ensure that whistleblowers are empowered to come forward when they see misbehavior; that they are appropriately compensated according to the framework established by Congress; and that those who report wrongdoing are protected from retaliation.
Chair Gensler has also taken action to carry out his commitment to encouraging whistleblowers to come forward. On August 2, 2021, Chair Gensler suspended the implementation of two recent amendments to the SEC whistleblower rules because these amendments could discourage whistleblowers from coming forward. He directed the staff to prepare for the Commission’s consideration potential revisions to these two rules.