The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled on an issue lying at the intersection of fraud conspiracies and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines: the government’s separate burden of proof against each co-defendant when multiple plea bargains are entered. Specifically, the 11th Circuit was addressing whether the government presented sufficient evidence to show, in a credit card fraud case, that the defendant’s criminal activity affected at least 250 victims. Finding that the government had come dramatically short of meeting its evidentiary burden, the appeals court opened its opinion with a flare of witty admonition: “Sometimes a number is just a number, but when the number at issue triggers an enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines, that number matters.”
The facts of this case are as interesting as the court’s tone. The defendant was Gary Washington, who pleaded guilty to four offenses related to his role in a credit card fraud conspiracy that affected more than 6,000 individual cardholders. At first blush, it stands to reason that his sentence was calculated using a level-6 enhancement, which is reserved for crimes affecting 250 or more victims. However, there was a critical issue that the government and the district court failed to appreciate: Washington didn’t enter the conspiracy until four months after its inception, so the full victim count couldn’t be summarily applied to him.
Remarkably, before the sentencing hearing, Washington conceded that “in all probability there were more than 250 victims.” However, his sticking point was that he wanted the government to submit “hard evidence” supporting a level-6 enhancement in place of its “verbal assurances.” The government essentially ignored his requests and proceeded to the hearing without submitting additional evidence. Washington objected again at the sentencing hearing, but the district court overruled his objection and applied the level-6 enhancement, noting that the figure had been applied to the other defendants’ sentences.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit found the government’s representations insufficient and stated that “evidence presented at the trial or sentencing hearing of another may not – without more – be used to fashion a defendant’s sentence if the defendant objects.” The appeals court pointed out that it was especially inappropriate to use the other co-defendants’ sentences as a guide, because Washington joined the conspiracy well after it began. Following this reasoning, the appeals court set aside Washington’s sentence and remanded the case to the lower court for resentencing. The 11th Circuit declined the government’s request to present additional evidence on remand, because nothing had prevented it from presenting sufficient evidence at the original sentencing hearing.
This case is another example of federal prosecutors and trial courts losing sight of our system’s fundamental canon: a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In some instances, the procedural safeguards that protect this system may seem inefficient and unnecessary. However, the alternative would beckon trial courts down the slippery slope of replacing actual evidence with assumptions. Fortunately, the appeals courts are present as a way of reining them in.
Former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling reportedly has negotiated a deal with federal prosecutors that is likely to result in a significant reduction of the prison sentence he will serve for his role in the collapse of Enron. Under the new agreement, Skilling faces between 14 and 17.5 years in prison — a 27 to 42 percent reduction relative to his previous sentence of 24 years. Apparently, Skilling’s aggressive defense wore prosecutors down in such a way that they are now willing to give up almost half of Skilling’s prison sentence to resolve the case once and for all.
In May 2006, Skilling was convicted on one count of conspiracy, 12 counts of securities fraud, five counts of making false statements to auditors, and one count of insider trading. As a result, he was sentenced to roughly 24 years in prison and ordered to pay $45 million in restitution.
Skilling appealed the convictions and sentence with some success. First, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit vacated his sentence on the grounds that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines had been misapplied. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the trial record did not support his conviction for conspiracy to commit “honest services” wire fraud. On remand, the 5th Circuit found the “honest services” error to be harmless and upheld the conviction so all that remained was for Skilling to be resentenced.
Skilling’s attorneys were preparing to request a second trial based on newly discovered evidence, but the prosecutors evidently decided that the fight was not worth it. According to prosecutors, the government has invested extraordinary resources in bringing Skilling to justice, and a second round would impose even greater costs, delay resolution, and delay restitution payments to Skilling’s victims.
The parties’ agreement will facilitate closure by stipulating that a sentence in the range of 14 to 17.5 years is reasonable. Both parties have agreed not to contest a sentence within that range and have reserved their right to contest a sentence outside that range.
U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, the sentencing judge, is likely to agree with the parties, as a sentence outside the agreed-upon range would burden the parties with costs they would rather avoid.
Skilling is scheduled to be resentenced in the Southern District of Texas on June 21.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is currently considering a sentencing issue of great significance in cases in which a number of individuals work together to bring about a financial fraud. The question posed is the extent to which a defendant can and/or should be punished based on the profits made through the fraud when the defendant did not receive as much money from the fraud as his co-conspirators.
In Kluger v. United States, the appeals court must determine whether former attorney Matthew Kluger’s sentence was unduly harsh. Kluger was one of three men who pleaded guilty to insider trading last year in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey. In his plea, Kluger, who is 51, admitted that he stole data on about 30 transactions during 17 years at law firms that included Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. The companies involved include Sun Microsystems, 3Com Corp., and Acxiom Corp. Kluger gave that information to his co-defendant, Kenneth Robinson, who in turn gave them to trader Garrett Bauer, who traded on the information and then sold at a great profit when the deals went public. Following the scheme, Bauer then distributed the money to his partners. Over the last four years of this arrangement, according to prosecutors, Bauer made about $32 million in illicit profits, while Robinson made more than $875,000. Kluger claims to have made more than $500,000.
The sentences that were meted out to Kluger and Bauer did not track this huge disparity in the benefit that each received from their illegal activities. Bauer was sentenced to nine years imprisonment. Kluger received a sentence of 12 years – the longest prison sentence ever given for insider trading, eclipsing the 11-year sentence received by Galleon Group co-founder Raj Rajaratnam. In sentencing Kluger, Judge Katherine Hayden said that she wanted to send a strong message about the “radiating effect of the loss of confidence in the market” caused by insider trading. Judge Hayden also emphasized Kluger’s abuse of trust given his position as a lawyer. Robinson, who cooperated with authorities and secretly recorded the other men for the FBI, received a sentence of only 27 months.
The notion that a defendant may be sentenced based on the aggregated gains of his co-conspirators is nothing new. Section 1B.1.3(1)(a)(1)(B) of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines expressly provides that, “in the case of a jointly undertaken criminal activity,” relevant conduct (which sets the amount to be used to calculate upward adjustments in the loss table of Section 2B1.1) includes “all reasonably foreseeable acts and omissions of others in furtherance of the jointly undertaken criminal activity . . .” But the acceptance of this approach may be strained by cases of insider trading and other white-collar crimes that increasingly involve astronomical amounts of money, and therefore expose all participants to draconian criminal sentences.
In appealing Kluger’s sentence, his attorneys stressed that the district court appeared not to have considered the disparity in the amount of money that Kluger actually received as a result of the insider trading compared with at least one of his co-conspirators. This argument echoes some of the reasoning of Judge Jed Rakoff in his sentencing of Rajat Gupta, who likewise received far less benefit from insider trading than his co-conspirator, Rajaratnam. The issue raises an interesting question: Should a defendant’s sentence be commensurate only with his or her own personal gain? Or is the measure of the proper severity of a sentence the total gain obtained by all of the participants – an approach that appears to be more in step with the concept of “relevant conduct” that plays an important role in calculating advisory ranges under the Sentencing Guidelines?
The Third Circuit’s determination on this issue may signal the direction that the courts take on this issue, or may be just the first ruling in what becomes a split among the circuits. The resolution of this issue will be particularly important in cases in which Section 2B1.1 (the loss value table) plays a critical role in determining Guidelines sentences.
April 30 was an historic day for online poker players in the United States. Just a bit more than two years after the indictment and civil cases that were termed “Black Friday” shut down the industry, Ultimate Poker became the first live real-money online poker site in the United States after Black Friday.
Nevada became the first state to legalize online poker in June 2011, and the regulations governing online gaming were issued in December 2011. Nevada gaming authorities granted Ultimate Poker a license in October and last week signed off last week on Ultimate Poker’s technology, which allowed them to launch.
Ultimate Gaming, a majority-owned subsidiary of Station Casinos, LLC, is operating UltimatePoker.com. Station Casinos owns sixteen casinos in Las Vegas. Ultimate Poker is the exclusive online gaming partner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Right now, Ultimate Poker is only available to people who are over the age of 21 and are located in Nevada, though you do not have to be a Nevada resident to participate. Players can register and deposit money into their accounts from anywhere in the world, but can only play when they are physically in Nevada. Players can also make deposits and withdrawals at any of Station Casinos’ locations in Las Vegas.
To verify location, Ultimate Poker will triangulate a customers’ cell phone signal, though some cell phone carriers are not participating in the plan yet. Some players reported difficulty when they tried to play on Ultimate Poker on the first day, including issues with the geo-location services and players being unaware that their cell phone carrier was not participating.
Nevada recently passed a bill that would authorize the state to enter into interstate gaming compacts with other states, a reality that became possible after the U.S. Department of Justice released an opinion in December 2011 stating that the Wire Act applied only to sports betting. Liquidity could become an issue for a state with a relatively small population such as Nevada, so interstate compacts could become vital to the long term success of the state’s online gaming industry.
Online gaming is legal in both New Jersey and Delaware, though those states have yet to go live. Nearly a dozen other states have at least considered some form of online gaming legislation in the past year.
We are very happy to see online poker back online again. Some hurdles remain for companies to assure that their products operate smoothly and efficiently, but it is a good day for the industry and players that real money poker is back online.
The state of New Jersey filed its opening brief on April 29 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in a case that could ultimately decide the fate of sports betting in the United States.
In February, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shipp struck down New Jersey’s new sports betting law, finding it invalid as conflicting with federal law. The federal law at issue is the Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Act of 1992 (PASPA), which prohibits any state from offering sports betting unless the state had a sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990.
In 2011, New Jersey voters approved a referendum by a 2-1 margin to amend the state’s constitution to allow sports betting in the state’s casinos and racetracks. The state legislature then passed a bill legalizing sports betting in the state and it was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie (R). The New Jersey law would allow wagering on all major professional and collegiate sporting events, except collegiate sporting events involving New Jersey colleges, and on all sporting events, professional or collegiate, taking place in the state.
In August, the four major professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) filed suit against New Jersey arguing that the sports gambling law violated federal law. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) later intervened as a plaintiff in the suit, joining the leagues.
The district court agreed with the plaintiffs and held that PASPA was a rational exercise of congressional power.
There have been prior challenges to PASPA in federal court, but none of those cases directly addressed the constitutionality of the statute, which the Third Circuit is being asked to do in this case.
New Jersey argues that PASPA is unconstitutional because it violates the anti-commandeering principle that Congress may not “require the States in their sovereign capacity to regulate their own citizens.” The Third Circuit’s view on the application of the anti-commandeering principle to PASPA is likely the key to this case for both sides. The district court held that PASPA did not violate the anti-commandeering principle because the doctrine is limited to laws that require some affirmative act by a state, and here New Jersey does not have to affirmatively take any action under the law.
New Jersey argues in its brief that there is no doctrinal basis for this requirement of affirmative conduct for “commandeering,” and that PASPA’s requirement to maintain existing laws is indistinguishable from a requirement to pass new laws. New Jersey cites case law stating that the anti-commandeering precedent turns on whether a law seeks “to control or influence that manner in which States regulate private parties.”
New Jersey also argues that PASPA violates the principle of equal sovereignty, which requires any discrimination among the states to be justified by “a showing that a statute’s geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets.” New Jersey argues that PASPA plainly discriminates among the states and that sports wagering is not the type of “local problem” that justifies different treatment among them. The justification in PASPA for the different treatment of the states was that some states already permitted sports wagering, a difference that does not justify the different treatment between the states.
New Jersey also challenged the leagues’ standing to bring the suit, arguing that although PASPA granted the leagues a right of action to enforce PASPA, “that act does not alter Article III’s jurisdictional requirements.” A separate hearing on just the standing issue was held by the district court in December, and the court found that the leagues did have standing to bring the suit. New Jersey argued that the district court relied on the general harm caused by illegal sports wagering, but that this harm was not traceable to the legalization of sports wagering in New Jersey. New Jersey also noted that the district court placed heavy emphasis on the 3rd Circuit decision in Office of the Commissioner of Baseball v. Markell, a decision that did not address the issue of standing.
The state argues that the standing of DOJ to enforce the law is irrelevant here because “intervention will not be permitted to breathe life into a ‘nonexistent’ law suit.” The court will sometimes treat the pleadings of an intervenor such as DOJ as a separate action, but New Jersey argues that this would not be justified here since DOJ’s intervention cannot be construed as a separate action because it did not sue to enforce the law; rather, DOJ intervened to defend PASPA’s constitutionality.
Intervenor defendants, the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, Inc. as well as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly Sheila Y. Oliver, also filed briefs arguing that PASPA is unconstitutional.
The deadline for the response from the leagues is May 23 and New Jersey will have an opportunity to file a reply brief by May 30. Oral arguments are scheduled in the appeals court on June 26.
The ruling in this case will have very far-reaching implications. A decision in favor of New Jersey will allow states to offer sports betting within their borders. It was not surprising that the district court ruled that New Jersey’s sports wagering law was invalid, but the law may have a different fate in the 3rd Circuit. New Jersey has some very compelling arguments that PASPA is unconstitutional and later this year we will find out if the appeals court agrees.
Justice may or may not be blind; but she can buckle under pressure. It may take years, millions of dollars and armies of attorneys, but if you have the resources to test her mettle, you too may tip the balance in your favor.
Almost seven years after his conviction on fraud and other charges, former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling may finally be succeeding in his effort to cut down his prison sentence that was originally set at more than 24 years. His investment in his battle is nothing short of impressive. He apparently spent some $70 million on his defense in the underlying trial that ended in 2006 … and that doesn’t include the subsequent seven years of activity, which involves more than 1300 docket entries as of March 2013.
Skilling’s persistence may be paying off. The Department of Justice recently issued a notice on a proposed sentencing agreement with Skilling. (The notice provided that victims have until April 17, 2013, to express their views on the prospective agreement. No further timetables have been officially set.)
It may seem surprising that the Justice Department would consider entering a sentencing agreement with someone who has already been convicted and sentenced and is serving time. But this is a product of Skilling’s aggressive efforts since his conviction, which have resulted in several appearances before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and in one successful trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2009, the Fifth Circuit vacated Skilling’s sentence – which is where the recently announced sentencing agreement comes into play. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that one of the legal theories behind Skilling’s conviction (the honest-services fraud theory) was unconstitutionally vague and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to decide whether any of the charges should be invalidated.
After more yo-yoing between courts (the Fifth Circuit upheld the conviction in 2011, the Supreme Court declined to hear a second subsequent appeal in 2012, and Skilling renewed his request for a new trial based on new evidence after the failed Supreme Court appeal), the Justice Department may be raising a white flag of sorts and opting to settle upon a sentence that is mutually acceptable to Skilling and prosecutors. The DOJ may be unwilling to spend more public resources on a man who won’t go away until he gets his way.
It is hard to say what the sentencing agreement will provide. We previously opined that in resentencing, the judge could sentence Skilling to somewhere between 15 and 30 years under the sentencing guidelines. Obviously a more stringent sentence than the previous 24-year sentence is not going to be the result of the prospective agreement between Skilling and the DOJ. Regardless of the terms, the agreement will need to be approved by the sentencing judge. And he will invariably have to balance, along with the scales of justice, the public outcry if the sentence is too light and the costs of continuing to do battle with Skilling.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced an initiative to step up its enforcement of trade secret theft. In a February 20 press conference, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration aimed to make it a top priority to prosecute intellectual property crimes. At the press conference, the DOJ unveiled a report titled, “Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which focuses largely on how to prevent and remedy trade secret theft by foreign governments and foreign corporations.
Only two days later, however, a development in one of the DOJ’s highest-profile trade secrets cases demonstrated the difficulties of prosecuting foreign defendants. On February 22, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia determined that, despite eight attempts, the DOJ had not properly served Kolon Industries Inc, a South Korean company accused of stealing trade secrets from duPont, a U.S. company. The DOJ’s criminal case follows a civil trial that returned a $919.9 million judgment against Kolon for stealing 149 trade secrets related to Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used in body armor. Kolon used those trade secrets to create its own competing fabric, Heracron.
The difficulties the DOJ encountered in bringing the overseas perpetrators to justice is especially relevant because the report indicates that most secret theft is committed by foreign nationals, especially in China. According to the report, “Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage. US private sector firms and cybersecurity specialists have reported an onslaught of computer network intrusions that have originated in China, but the [intelligence community] cannot confirm who was responsible.” The vast majority of cases highlighted in the report involve Chinese nationals or Chinese firms.
The difficulties in bringing foreign nationals to justice only emphasize the need for corporations to take stronger precautions to prevent their trade secrets from being stolen in the first place. The “Administration Strategy” document recognized this need and proposed that companies work cooperatively to develop best practices for trade secret protection in areas such as research and development compartmentalization, information security policies, physical security policies, and human resources policies.
The “Administration Strategy” document notes that companies suffering from trade secret theft may be hesitant to come forward for fear of how it could affect the company and its stakeholders. However, the document encourages them to do so, both in order to bring the perpetrator to justice and to allow the government to collect information that could help to identify patterns in trade theft and prevent similar events in the future.
The DOJ has demonstrated its commitment to trade secret enforcement by continuing to pursue the Kolon case despite the February setback. The DOJ filed a superseding indictment on March 19 and must now serve Kolon in accordance with the judge’s February 22 order. Given the fanfare with which the DOJ announced its trade secret agenda, there is no doubt that the government will continue to doggedly pursue this and other trade secret cases.
We support the DOJ’s effort to protect corporate trade secrets so that companies can benefit from the innovation that they work so hard to develop. As always, we also remain on the lookout for indications of overzealous prosecution in instances where it does not appear that confidential proprietary information has been stolen.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is set to become the first federal appellate court to answer the question left open by the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones. Last year, the Court held in Jones that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs, and a warrant is required, when a GPS tracking device is attached by law enforcement to a person’s vehicle and then used to track its movements. The Court did not consider when, if ever, that type of search would be exempt from the Constitution’s warrant requirement.
Last month, the 3rd Circuit heard oral arguments on that question. It is expected to issue its decision later this year.The appeal relates to the prosecution of Harry, Michael, and Mark Katzin — three brothers charged with the burglary of a Rite Aid pharmacy in Pennsylvania. In 2009, authorities began investigating a rash of pharmacy burglaries in the Northeast. Most of the crimes targeted Rite Aid stores and appeared related because each occurred after someone had cut the wires to the pharmacy’s alarm system. Eventually, authorities identified Harry Katzin as a person of interest. He had been implicated in suspicious activities involving other Rite Aid pharmacies and was known to keep electrician’s tools, gloves and ski masks in his van.
Initially, agents physically tracked Katzin’s movements. Then they decided more comprehensive surveillance was needed, so they attached a GPS tracking device to Katzin’s bumper and waited. Two or three days later, the tracking device showed that the van had stopped at a Rite Aid store in Hamburg, Pa. After the van left, one agent drove to the store to confirm it had been burglarized while state troopers followed the van onto the highway. When the burglary was confirmed, troopers stopped the van and arrested the Katzins. Only then did authorities obtain a search warrant, which led to their discovery of merchandise from the Rite Aid store, parts of the pharmacy’s alarm system, and Schedule II drugs.
In April 2011, the brothers were charged with pharmacy burglary and possession of Schedule II drugs with intent to distribute. They filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in the van. At that time, neither the 3rd Circuit nor the Supreme Court had decided whether the attachment and use of an external GPS tracking device constitutes a Fourth Amendment search. In early 2012, the Jones Court made clear that it does. Applying Jones, the trial judge granted the Katzins’ motion, and the government appealed.
On appeal, the government argues that the search in question, i.e., the attachment and use of the GPS device, falls within one of two exceptions to the warrant requirement. Under the “reasonable suspicion” exception, a warrantless search may be conducted under limited circumstances if the minimal intrusion on the individual’s privacy is outweighed by a legitimate government interest. In this case, the government contends, the “trespass” to Katzin’s van was minimal because it involved the placement of a magnetic GPS device on the bumper. Subsequent monitoring of the device was minimally intrusive because it revealed only the location of the van — information that could be obtained by physical surveillance. In the government’s view, these minimal intrusions were outweighed by the government’s interests in investigating crime.
The government also argues that the search falls within the “probable cause” exception. Under that exception, officers may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile if there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or if exigent circumstances make a warrant application impractical. The government claims that no warrant was required in this case because officers had probable cause to believe that Katzin would use his van to burglarize another Rite Aid pharmacy.
The Katzin brothers counter that neither exception applies. First, the “reasonable suspicion” exception does not apply because the officers installed the device without a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot at the time of installation. Instead, the officers proceeded on a hunch that turned out to be right. The Constitution requires more than that.
The “probable cause” exception does not apply because, when the officers installed the device, they had no reason to believe there was contraband in the van or that the van was readily mobile, which might have made a warrant application impractical. As the Katzins point out, the officers attached the device in the dead of night on a deserted street. If the officers had evidence to support probable cause under those circumstances, they should have applied for a warrant.
Our sense is that the trial court will be upheld. The Fourth Amendment’s baseline requirement is that searches be conducted pursuant to a valid warrant supported by probable cause. These facts do not appear to support an exception. As the trial judge noted, the government argues for application of the “reasonable suspicion” exception based on its general interest in efficient law enforcement. The government did not prove that the special needs of this case required the warrantless intrusion visited on the defendants.
Likewise, the government argues for application of the “probable cause” argument based on the officers’ general suspicion that Katzin would use his van to commit a crime in the coming days, weeks, or months. The government did not prove that the officers had probable cause to believe that a crime was in progress when the device was attached. If courts do not hold the line on these exceptions, the Fourth Amendment will be eviscerated.
We have written previously about Bitcoin, the new form of “peer-to-peer” currency whose proponents expect to be a game-changer in the world financial markets. It’s not clear yet what Bitcoin’s ultimate destination will be, as the currency has had a lot of scrutiny, and undergone a tremendous amount of volatility, lately.
In a recent 24-hour period, the value of a single Bitcoin on the largest Bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, was high as $266 and as low as $105. It’s hard to sustain a business model with that incredibly high volatility factor.
However, according to TechCrunch, angel investors and venture capitalists remain “hungry to invest in the ecosystem surrounding the decentralized digital currency.” In other words, investors want to create a different, and possibly superior, Bitcoin.
That currency is known as OpenCoin, which wants to create a decentralized global currency yet prefers to stay away from the moniker of “another Bitcoin.” The company behind OpenCoin has raised an undisclosed amount of venture-capital money to expand the open-source code behind Ripple, which is a virtual currency and payment system that aims to make it easy and affordable for anyone to trade any amount in any currency.
OpenCoin hopes to clear its transactions within minutes; to handle dollars, euros, and other currencies seamlessly; and to solve BitCoin’s security issues.
Some observers think OpenCoin has a greater chance of success than Bitcoin because it has been carefully conceived rather than just springing up from the minds of a few hackers, and because it doesn’t have a history of volatility and of facilitating illegal payments.
But it’s still a very long way before any of these artificial currencies catches on. We will be watching them carefully. We hope that financial regulators, both in the United States and world-wide, realize that these currencies can do a great deal of good, and that the Treasury Department doesn’t conclude that they are nothing more than vehicles for money laundering. Treasury’s recent announcement that dealers in Bitcoin-like currencies must obey money-laundering laws seems like an acceptably moderate approach.
Last December, we wrote about the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s issuance of so-called “Wells” notices indicating that the agency was considering whether to bring enforcement proceedings against Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings. The SEC’s ire was aroused by a posting by Hastings on his personal Facebook page about Netflix’s success. The agency was concerned about whether such statements in social media complied with disclosure requirements known as “Regulation Fair Disclosure” or “Reg FD.”
In general, Reg FD requires that, when an issuer discloses material, nonpublic information to certain individuals or entities – generally, securities market professionals such as stock analysts or holders of the issuer’s securities who may well trade on the basis of the information – the issuer must make public disclosure of that information. The purpose of these restrictions is to prevent issuer companies from disclosing material information preferentially to certain traders or securities market professionals.
On April 2, 2013, the SEC issued a report that made clear that companies that use social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to announce key information are in compliance with Reg FD so long as investors have been alerted about which social media will be used to disseminate such information. In approving the use of social media (with the stated proviso), the SEC reinforced that Reg FD applies to the use of what it characterized as “emerging means of communication” the same way that it applies to company websites, and referenced the SEC’s 2008 guidance regarding the use of websites.
The SEC’s conclusion should be no surprise. On the one hand, it reinforces the widely recognized and increasing use of social media as a source of information by a growing segment of the population. On the other hand, it serves as a reminder to companies that they need to make sure that all investors know and have access to the channels that the companies use to issue important information.
The likelihood, for now, is that companies will continue to use a variety of means to issue information to the public – including social media, websites and more old-school methods such as press releases. But the acceptance of social media as an appropriate means of disclosure for publicly owned companies is an important step forward in the evolution of social media from a means of friendly banter to an important information channel for businesses and investors alike.