SEC rethinks sweetheart settlements

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Jo White on May 3, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Many of the enforcement actions brought against companies by the Securities and Exchange Commission end with settlements. And often, companies don’t have to admit guilt. They will pay big fines, but they don’t want to say they’re liable. 

“If they admit guilt, they open themselves wide open to a series of lawsuits from other people about whatever actions occur,” says James J. Angel, an associate professor of finance at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

For years, The SEC has said settlements in which companies neither admit nor deny guilt are necessary. If companies didn’t have this option, lawsuits would go on for years. Yesterday, at The Wall Street Journal CFO Network conference, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said she’s reevaluating that.

Dennis Kelleher is with the nonprofit Better Markets, and he says that’s good news:

“They are actually thinking hard about whether or not these sweetheart settlements, with no admissions or denials and often very little disclosed information, is actually appropriate in 100 percent of the cases, which is virtually the policy today."

But what’s troubling, Kelleher says, is that the SEC is not going to seek an admission of guilt in every case. SEC Chair Mary Jo White said that, in all likelihood, a majority of cases will be settled in the same old way.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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