Will Cash Incentives for Whistleblowing Undermine Compliance Programs?

Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act provides an expanded whistleblower program that allows the whistleblower to get part of the money paid to the SEC for the violation. After several years of encouraging the development of internal complaint hotlines and compliance programs, Congress seems to now be encouraging a trip to the Feds before reporting a problem internally. On November 3, 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) published its Proposed Rules for Implementing the Whistleblower Provisions of Section 21F of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

I think the approach is poor and could undermine corporate compliance programs. On the other hand, I think employees are more likely to report the problem internally than externally. Reporting externally is a much bigger step. You don’t know who is getting the report or what they will do with it.

The promise of cash payments is a bit remote. It’s not like the SEC will be cutting a check once you make the call. There will months, if not years, of investigation and litigation before there is any money available. And that is assuming the Feds win. In the meantime, the reporter has jeopardized his or her job and career.

I think the typical person is much more likely to talk to their friendly, internal compliance people before they go racing off to the Feds seeking fame and riches.

Now there is some evidence that I’m correct. The National Whistleblowers Center has released a report on the Impact of Qui Tam Laws on Internal Corporate Compliance. Based on a review of qui tam cases filed between 2007-2010 under the False Claims Act, the overwhelming majority of employees voluntarily utilized internal reporting processes, despite the fact that they were potentially eligible for a large reward under the False Claims Act. 89.7% of employees who would eventually file a qui tam case initially reported their concerns internally, either to supervisors or compliance departments.

Their conclusion:

“The qui tam reward provision of the False Claims Act has existed for more than 20 years and has resulted in numerous large and well-publicized rewards to whistleblowers. However, contrary to the disingenuous assertions by corporate commenters, the existence of this strong and well-known qui tam rewards law has had no effect whatsoever on whether a whistleblower first brings his concerns to a supervisor or internal compliance program. There is no basis to believe that the substantively identical qui tam provisions in the Dodd-Frank law will in any way discourage internal reporting.”

It may not be meaningful for some time. The Securities and Exchange Commission is operating under budget constraints and put the whistleblower office on hold until funding clears up. The new Congress may repeal provisions of Dodd-Frank, but they can limit some of the funding.

Much of the whistleblower program is in SEC Release 34-6323. Comments are open until December 17, 2010. Certainly, the proposed rule could change significantly bases on the comments. There have been lots of comments from the compliance community at the public companies subject to this rule. I would like to see the rule changed as a validation of internal compliance programs.