Are Culpable Whistleblowers Eligible to Receive SEC Whistleblower Awards?
Yes. In many circumstances, culpable whistleblowers are eligible to receive SEC whistleblowers awards (see limitations below). The final rules of the SEC Whistleblower Program recognize that culpable whistleblowers enhance the SEC’s ability to detect violations of the federal securities laws, increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the SEC’s investigations, and provide critical evidence for the SEC’s enforcement actions. In fact, a speech by the former Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement highlighted the importance of culpable whistleblowers to the agency’s enforcement efforts:
Finally, I want to say a word about participants in wrongdoing and their ability to be whistleblowers. It is important for participants in misconduct to understand that, in many circumstances, they are eligible for awards and we would like to hear from them. Obviously, culpable insiders with first-hand knowledge of misconduct can provide valuable information and assistance in identifying participants in, transactions relating to, and proceeds of, fraudulent schemes. And, while there are safeguards built into the program to ensure that whistleblowers do not profit from their own misconduct…culpable whistleblowers can still get paid for eligible information they report that falls outside of these limitations.
SEC Whistleblower Awards to Culpable Whistleblowers
The SEC Whistleblower Program’s decision to work with, and award, culpable whistleblowers has proven to be effective in enabling the SEC to discover fraud and protect investors. To date, the SEC has issued several awards to whistleblowers who had some culpability in the violations, including:
On August 30, 2016, the SEC announced a $22 million award to a whistleblower who helped the agency “halt a well-hidden fraud” at the company where the whistleblower worked. The accompanying order states that the Commission considered several factors mitigating the whistleblower’s culpability in determining the appropriate percentage, but the whistleblower did not financially benefit from the misconduct.
On July 27, 2017, the SEC announced a $1.7 million award to a whistleblower who helped the Commission stop a “serious, multi-year fraud that would have otherwise been difficult to detect.” There were a few mitigating factors in the Commission’s determination of the whistleblower’s final award, including the fact that the whistleblower did not comply with one of the SEC’s rules, an omission which normally requires an award denial. The order stated that “certain unusual circumstances” governed this case, thus the Commission decided to waive that requirement. In determining the award amount, the Commission considered, too, the fact that the whistleblower unreasonably delayed in reporting and ultimately bore “some, albeit limited, culpability” in the fraud.
On September 14, 2018, the SEC announced it had reduced a whistleblower’s award to $1.5 million because the Commission found that the whistleblower unreasonably delayed in reporting the fraud, the whistleblower “received a significant and direct financial benefit,” and was culpable in the scheme. The order further details these determining factors, and explains that the whistleblower waited more than a year after learning of the facts to report the fraud and reported to the Commission only after learning of the ongoing investigation.
See additional SEC whistleblower cases that have resulted in multi-million dollar awards.
Limitations on SEC Whistleblower Awards to Culpable Whistleblowers
While the SEC has been clear that it welcomes information from culpable whistleblowers, the SEC Whistleblower Program has specific rules that could disqualify certain whistleblowers from receiving SEC whistleblower awards. In addition, the program has rules that could limit the size of a culpable whistleblower’s future SEC whistleblower award. Importantly, whistleblowers who are concerned about potential liability should consult with experienced SEC whistleblower attorneys before reporting information to the SEC Office of the Whistleblower. Once information is submitted to the SEC, it cannot be withdrawn.
Whistleblowers Cannot Be Convicted of a Criminal Violation
The SEC Office of the Whistleblower will not issue awards to whistleblowers who are convicted of a criminal violation in relation to an action for which they would otherwise be eligible for an award. Moreover, the SEC Whistleblower Program does not provide amnesty to whistleblowers who provide information to the SEC. The fact that a whistleblower reports information to the SEC and assists in an SEC investigation and enforcement action does not preclude the SEC from bringing an action against the whistleblower based upon their own conduct in connection with violations of the federal securities laws. If such an action is determined to be appropriate, however, the SEC will take the whistleblower’s cooperation into consideration. As noted in the speech of the former Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement: “There are also other potential benefits for culpable whistleblowers — in appropriate circumstances, we will take their cooperation under the whistleblower program and in our investigation into consideration in deciding what remedies, if any, are appropriate in any action we determine should be brought against the whistleblowers for their role in the scheme.”
Culpable Whistleblowers Cannot Benefit from Their Own Misconduct
Under the SEC Whistleblower Program, the SEC will issue awards to whistleblowers who provide original information that leads to enforcement actions with total monetary sanctions in excess of $1 million. A whistleblower may receive an award of between 10-30 percent of the monetary sanctions collected. Since 2011, the SEC Whistleblower Office has issued nearly $400 million in awards to whistleblowers. The largest SEC whistleblower awards to date are a $50 million award, a $39 million award, and a $37 million award.
While the SEC is permitted to issue awards to culpable whistleblowers, the rules of the SEC Whistleblower Program do not allow whistleblowers to benefit from their own misconduct. Specifically, for purposes of determining whether the $1 million threshold has been satisfied or calculating the amount of an award, the SEC will not count any monetary sanctions that the whistleblower is ordered to pay or that are ordered to be paid against any entity whose liability is based substantially on conduct that the whistleblower directed, planned, or initiated.
Culpability May Decrease the Size of an Award
In determining the percentage of monetary sanctions to award a whistleblower, the SEC considers various factors that may increase or decrease the size of a whistleblower’s award. One of the factors that may decrease the size of an award is the whistleblower’s culpability in the securities law violation. When making this determination, the SEC may consider the following factors:
the whistleblower’s position or responsibility at the time the violations occurred;
if the whistleblower acted with scienter, both generally and in relation to others who participated in the violations;
if the whistleblower is a recidivist;
the egregiousness of the fraud committed by the whistleblower;
whether the whistleblower financially benefitted from the scheme; and
whether the whistleblower knowingly interfered with the SEC’s investigation.
Notably, while culpability may reduce a whistleblower’s award percentage, any whistleblower who qualifies for an award under the SEC Whistleblower Program – including culpable whistleblowers – will receive at least 10% of the monetary sanctions collected in the enforcement action.