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Hating lawyers may not have started with Shakespeare, but he didn’t help things when he wrote “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” in Henry VI.  Any lawyer who’s been practicing law for more than a couple of weeks knows that part of the price of bar admission is having to endure lawyer jokes (most of which aren’t very good) and experiences like having a client say to you at the outset of your first meeting, “just so you know, I don’t like lawyers” or words to that effect.

It’s particularly painful, however, when an attack on our profession comes from one of our own, who also happens to be a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  I refer to a March 4 speech by Commissioner Allison Herren Lee in which she notes her “deep regard for the ideals of public service that our profession represents” and that her “belief in the ideals of the profession – ideals I know you all share – has only grown stronger with time” but then goes on to castigate corporate lawyers for failing to fulfill our “role…as gatekeepers in the capital markets.”  She distinguishes corporate lawyers from litigators – a dubious distinction that suggests we should be less zealous in representing our clients than our litigation colleagues – and says that in passing Section 307 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (more on that below) “Congress was concerned…that counsel often acted in the interests of the executives who hired them rather than the company and its shareholders to whom their duty and responsibility is [sic] owed.”
Continue Reading Who needs Shakespeare when you’ve got the SEC?

Remember those three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?  Well, that’s kind of how the SEC views the internet and social media.  Time after time after time, the SEC has cautioned that social media are fraught, to the point that I sometimes wonder if there is a watermark, visible only to securities lawyers, in every SEC pronouncement about the web and social media that says “PROCEED AT YOUR PERIL!”  And, unfortunately, many (too many, IMHO) SEC attorneys follow the SEC’s lead and either don’t encourage or actively discourage clients from taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by technology.

An example may be helpful.  Several years ago, when I was in-house, we decided to include in our proxy statement a live link to something on our website.  When we sent our draft proxy statement to outside counsel for the customary rules check, one of the comments we received was a strong admonition to remove the link or at least not make it “live.”  The rationale was that there might be something on our website that we wouldn’t put in an Exchange Act filing and that the link would somehow suck all that bad stuff into the proxy statement and lead to liability.
Continue Reading Note to SEC: The internet and social media are here – deal with it!

I suppose I should be getting tired of writing about enforcement actions involving nondisclosure of perquisites (for example, see here), and that you’re getting tired of reading about them.  However, the topic is hard to resist, whether due to schadenfreude (look it up) or other factors.

The most recent such enforcement action, announced in late November, told a story similar to those told before – a CEO who used corporate aircraft for personal travel, used corporate credit cards for personal expenses, and so on, resulting in a failure to disclose more than $425,000 in “perks” over a two-year period.  The CEO also pledged all of his company stock in violation of a shareholders agreement that required the prior written consent of the company, but that’s another story.  Suffice it to say that the company and the CEO were hit with a variety of charges, including a failure to maintain accurate books and records.

If this elicits yawns or eye-rolling that we’ve seen this movie before, so be it.  However, there is a twist.  Specifically, the SEC’s report noted that the CEO did not disclose the relevant information in his questionnaires – and in some cases had not completed a questionnaire at all.  I don’t recall the SEC focusing on the lowly D&O questionnaire in the past.  Anyone who has pulled his or her hair out trying to get a director or officer to complete a questionnaire is now smiling and saying “Ha!  It serves him right!”  (The same goes for all those directors and officers who complete every questionnaire by saying “please fill it out for me” or “no change from last year” regardless of whether there are changes.)
Continue Reading Another perquisites enforcement action…with a twist or three

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In the last several days, the SEC has engaged in a skirmish, and possibly an opening battle, against SPACs.  A recap follows.

The first shot was fired on March 31, when the Staff of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance and the Office of Chief Accountant issued separate public statements about a number of risks and challenges associated with taking private companies public via “deSPAC” transactions.

The CorpFin statement covered a lot of territory, pointing out the following pitfalls, among others, facing companies that go public via a deSPAC.  These pitfalls reflect that such companies are subject to rules governing shell companies that do not apply to companies going public through conventional IPOs.

  • Financial statements for the target must be filed with an 8-K report within four business days of the completion of the business combination.  The usual 71-day extension for such financial statements is not available.
  • The combined company will not be eligible to incorporate Exchange Act reports or proxy or information statements until three years after the completion of the business combination.
  • The combined company will not be eligible to use Form S-8 for the registration of securities issuable under compensation and benefit plans until at least 60 calendar days after the combined company has filed current Form 10 information. (This information is customarily included in a “Super 8-K” filed within four business days after closing of the deSPAC transaction.)
  • For three years following the completion of the deSPAC transaction, the company will be unable to use some streamlined procedures for offerings and other filings, such as using a free-writing prospectus.

The statement also reminds companies that public issuers are required to maintain accurate books and records as well as internal control on financial reporting – both areas that have been the basis for enforcement actions by the SEC.
Continue Reading Caveat Everybody — The SEC Takes Aim at SPACs

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My apologies to those of you who thought I would expound on the corporate governance implications of Madonna’s early oeuvre; but I want to write about materiality, and I’m a sucker for a catchy title.

Those of us who spend our waking (and many sleeping) hours thinking about disclosure know that materiality is the linchpin of disclosure; if something is material, you at least have to consider disclosing it – though of course, probability and other factors can impact that decision.  We also know that there are any number of judicial interpretations of what is and is not material.  However, it seems to me that we are approaching a tipping point in how materiality may impact disclosures.

Take, for example, the position of SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman, who has stated, in effect, that there is no need for SEC rules explicitly requiring disclosures concerning climate change and other ESG matters, because existing rules already require disclosure of anything that is material to a company.  (For example, see his keynote address to the 2020 National Conference of the Society for Corporate Governance.)  I have been a member of the Society for many years, and I have heard many of my fellow members express similar views.  However, if that is the case, taking that view to its logical extreme, why have any specific disclosure requirements at all?  Why not just say “tell us what’s material”?
Continue Reading Living in a material world

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Remember when you were a kid and you didn’t clean up your room or do something else you were supposed to do, and a parent would say “How many times do I have to tell you…?”  Well, the same holds true for perquisites disclosure.

Not quite four months ago, I wrote about an SEC enforcement action involving perquisites and the importance of paying close attention to perks.  Well, the SEC has done it again.  Two enforcement actions in four months may not a trend make, but as we approach the end of the calendar year – and the onset of the 2021 proxy season – a reminder seems in order.

The recent enforcement action, concluded at the end of September, sounds similar to so many other sagas of nondisclosure of perks.  In this case, the company disclosed “All Other Compensation” just shy of $600,000 over a four-year period.  The compensation included “certain personal travel and lodging costs.”  However, according to the SEC, the company failed to disclose $1.7 million of “travel-related perquisites and personal benefits,” consisting of personal use of corporate aircraft, expenses associated with hotel stays, and taxes related to both items.  It seems hard to overlook $1.7 million, but it’s not the first time it’s happened, and it almost surely will not be the last.
Continue Reading Perquisites Disclosure: “How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?”

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How did we get here?

On September 11, 2020, the SEC adopted new rules to “update and expand the statistical disclosures” that bank holding companies, banks, savings and loan holding companies, and savings and loan associations are required to provide to investors. The old regime – Industry Guide 3, “Statistical Disclosure by Bank Holding Companies” – had not been meaningfully updated for more than 30 years.  There have been all sorts of developments since then, including new accounting standards, a financial crisis, and new disclosure requirements imposed by banking agencies. So it’s not surprising that the SEC began questioning the need to make changes to Industry Guide 3, requesting comments in 2017 and again with a proposed rule in September 2019.

So, what’s new?

The changes were implemented in part to eliminate overlaps with disclosures already required under SEC rules, U.S. GAAP, and International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS”), as well as to incorporate new accounting standards. Under the new rules, disclosures are required for each annual period presented (as well as any additional interim period should a material change in the information or trend occur), aligning these disclosures with the annual periods for financial statements.
Continue Reading Out with the old, in with the new: Banks and S&Ls must now provide updated and expanded statistical disclosures

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On August 26, 2020, the SEC continued to keep its foot on the gas with respect to its recent practice of modernizing disclosure rules by adopting amendments to the description of business (Item 101), legal proceedings (Item 103), and risk factor disclosures (Item 105) that registrants are required to make pursuant to Regulation S-K. As discussed in a previous post by my colleague, Bob Lamm, regarding the rule changes as originally proposed on August 8, 2019, the changes significantly update the provisions of Regulation S-K and signal a continuing shift to a principles-based approach to disclosure. The SEC gave the green light to the amendments substantially as proposed in 2019, with some minor modifications. Details of the final amendments are included below. The previous post provides commentary on some of the rule changes and some observations regarding the potential impacts of the shift to a principles-based approach to disclosure on registrants and their advisors.

In its press release announcing the amendments, the SEC acknowledged that these updates were due – actually, overdue – after decades of evolution in the capital markets and the domestic and global economy without any corresponding revisions in the disclosure rules. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton stated that  the improvements to these rules “are rooted in materiality and seek to elicit information that will allow today’s investors to make more informed investment decisions,” adding that the revisions “add[] efficiency and flexibility to our disclosure framework.”
Continue Reading Pedal to the metal on principles-based disclosure

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As noted in a prior post, every now and then the SEC Enforcement Division likes to remind companies of the requirement to disclose personal benefits, or perquisites.  I’d even hazard a guess – completely unsubstantiated by research – that enforcement actions regarding perquisite non-disclosure make up a significant percentage of enforcement actions concerning proxy statements.

And yet, companies seem to keep forgetting about perks disclosure.  In some cases, the companies’ disclosure controls may not capture perquisites, but my hunch – again, unsupported by research, but this time supported by experience – is that companies and, in particular, their executives, manage to persuade themselves that the benefits in question have a legitimate business purpose and thus are not personal benefits at all.  Over the course of my career, I’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of reasons why a seemingly personal benefit should be treated as a business expense.  Here are just a few:
Continue Reading When it comes to perquisites, caveat discloser

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Aristotle is said to have coined the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum.”  Far be it from me to question Aristotle, but while he was right, I think his view was too narrow — the abhorrence of vacuums goes far beyond nature and extends to investors and the media, among many others.  Companies that hide behind closed doors and ignore or deny requests for information from investors and the media run the risk of finding themselves without a welcoming audience when they eventually choose to communicate.

Let’s be clear – any securities lawyer worth his or her salt knows that sometimes the best thing to say is “no comment” or its equivalent.  I’ve given that advice very often. The problem is that in my experience, most of the time when a company says “no comment” or “we don’t respond to rumors,” the rumor is likely true.  Conversely, when the rumor is just that, a rumor, companies tend to squeal like a proverbial stuck pig.  For some reason, companies that engage in this sort of behavior fail to understand how it plays out among investors and the media.

It has also been my experience that securities attorneys all too often think they are smarter than their clients’ communications and investor relations advisors and disregard the advisors’ recommendations.  Even a smart lawyer isn’t likely to know more than these advisors about IR or communications – in fact, many lawyers are terrible communicators.  So it’s worth listening to and considering those advisors’ recommendations instead of dismissing them out of hand.  Personally, I’ve learned a great deal from investor relations and communications advisors.
Continue Reading Aristotle was right (or, “tell your story or someone else will”)