(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
I've been working on my outline for an upcoming continuing legal education program on how in-house practitioners can avoid or minimize securities fraud liability. I talked to Maslon's securities litigation partner extraordinaire, Rich Wilson, about the topic, and we came up with the following tips:
The simple rule is to disclose material information in a way that's not misleading. However, Rich cautions that a higher standard of disclosure may be required now. As Rich puts it, "There is a growing public skepticism that will make its way into the jury pool and even into the judiciary. In a dispute, a tie may no longer go to the company." SEC enforcement also poses new dangers, because the agency has a beefed-up enforcement staff and new energy. In other words, business as usual may not be the best course in the current atmosphere.
Also, in the current climate, process and consistency become increasingly important. Companies should take a fresh look at their disclosure controls and procedures. The CEO and CFO have to certify the adequacy of these procedures every quarter in the 10-K and 10-Qs, but now is the time to make sure the procedures still make sense and are being followed consistently. This increased emphasis on compliance has to be maintained, even at a time when a lot of companies are cutting back on their in-house legal and compliance staffs due to economic considerations.
It is also important to minimize the possibility of inconsistent disclosures by multiple individuals, and leaks of material non-public information. The company should have a clear written communications policy to ensure that corporate disclosures are made consistently by authorized spokespersons, and to prevent leaks. Again, the company should monitor and enforce consistent compliance with the policy.
It is also very important to consistently monitor and enforce compliance with the company's insider trading policy. If insiders appear to be trading in the company's stock before allegedly material information is disclosed, this will greatly increase the risk of a lawsuit or SEC enforcement proceeding, compared to a disclosure-based claim alone.
All good tips. Although, maybe not as good as the tip my law school buddy used to give me: "Don't get caught cheating". Yes, he was kidding. Or maybe not - he ended up getting elected to Congress.