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Admit It! SEC May Seek Admissions of Wrongdoing in Settlements

Written by: Marc H. Axelbaum, Sarah A. Good, G. Derek Andreson, and Emily Burkett

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) is poised to modify its “no-admit, no-deny” policy to seek more admissions of wrongdoing from defendants as a condition of settlement in enforcement cases. The change comes on the heels of recent criticism of the policy from two federal judges and a U.S. Senator and would result in potentially far-reaching consequences for companies, their directors, officers, and employees.

The Proposed Policy Change
At the Wall Street Journal CFO Network’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 18, SEC Chairman Mary Jo White announced her intention to require more admissions of wrongdoing from defendants in the settlement of enforcement actions. Prior to this announcement, the SEC only required such admissions in a narrow sub-set of cases in which parties admitted certain facts as part of a guilty plea or other criminal or regulatory agreement. Such an approach would represent a radical departure from the SEC’s longstanding no-admit, no-deny policy, under which defendants settle cases without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Chairman White emphasized that the no-admit, no-deny policy will still be used in the “majority” of cases and that “having ‘no-admit, no-deny’ settlement protocols in your arsenal as a civil enforcement agency [is] critically important to maintain.”1

 

Details are still forthcoming on the scope of the proposed changes to the SEC policy, which will require approval from a majority of the five SEC commissioners. However, Chairman White presumably would not have announced her intention to depart from tradition and require admissions of wrongdoing in certain settlements if such a change lacked majority support from the other Commissioners. In a memo written to the Enforcement Division staff, the Division’s Co-Directors, George Canellos and Andrew Ceresney, have suggested that the SEC would only require admissions of wrongdoing where it would be in the public interest. According to the memo, this may include “misconduct that harmed large numbers of investors or placed investors or the market at risk of potentially serious harm; where admissions might safeguard against risks posed by the defendant to the investing public, particularly when the defendant engaged in egregious intentional misconduct; or when the defendant engaged in unlawful obstruction of the Commission’s investigative processes.”2

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