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On February 11, the DOJ announced a $2.5 million settlement with a South Carolina university to resolve allegations that the university violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false claims to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the announcement, between 2014 and 2016, the university hired a company, which was partially owned by the university, to recruit students to the university and paid the company based on the number of students who enrolled in university programs, in violation of the prohibition on paying incentive compensation in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The co-owner of the company originally brought a qui tam lawsuit against the university and will receive $375,000 from the settlement.
On January 7, NYDFS issued guidance providing principles and best practices that all NYDFS-regulated institutions “regardless of industry, size, or number of employees” should consider when designing and implementing a robust whistleblowing program, which the department considers to be an essential component of an institution’s comprehensive compliance program.
The guidance notes that the design of a whistleblowing program should be based on factors such as the institution’s size, geographical reach and business. However, it outlines ten elements that institutions should, at a minimum, consider how to account for when designing their programs:
- Independent, well-publicized, easy-to-access, and consistent reporting channels;
- Strong protections for whistleblower anonymity;
- Established procedures for identifying and managing the effects of possible conflicts of interest;
- Adequately trained staff members responsible for receiving a whistleblowing complaints, determining a course of action, and competently managing any investigation, referral, or escalation;
- Established procedures for appropriately investigating allegations of wrongdoing;
- Established procedures for ensuring appropriate follow-up to valid complaints;
- Protections against any form of retaliation;
- Confidential treatment, including safeguards to protect the confidentiality of the whistleblower and the whistleblowing matters themselves;
- Appropriate oversight by senior managers, internal and external auditors, and the Board of Directors; and
- A top-down culture of support for the whistleblowing function.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December NYDFS issued a consent order against an international bank and its New York branch to resolve allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program.
On December 18, NYDFS announced a $15 million settlement with an international bank and its New York branch resolving allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program. According to the announcement, NYDFS’ investigation determined that several members of senior management failed to follow or apply the bank’s whistleblower policies and procedures, which allegedly allowed the bank’s CEO to attempt to identify the author(s) of two whistleblowing letters criticizing his and bank’s management’s roles in recruiting and employing a recently hired senior executive. Additionally, the investigation found that, in alleged violation of New York Banking Law, the bank (i) failed to devise and implement effective governance and controls with respect to the whistleblower program; and (ii) failed to submit a report to NYDFS immediately upon discovering misconduct.
NYDFS acknowledged the bank’s substantial cooperation in the investigation, including engaging an outside consultant to perform an independent review of the whistleblowing policies, processes, and controls. Additionally NYDFS stated the bank has already addressed certain deficiencies noted in the Consent Order, including implementing (i) procedures which recognize that concerns raised outside whistleblowing channels may nevertheless constitute whistleblows; (ii) procedures which would avoid escalating a whistleblow to the subject of the concern; and (c) procedures to preserve whistleblower anonymity. In addition to the $15 million penalty, the bank must create a written plan to improve compliance and oversight of the whistleblower program and submit a report to NYDFS that contains all instances of whistleblower complaints since January 2017, attempts to identify whistleblowers, and any reported or sustained instances of whistleblower retaliation.
On December 4, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a New York foreclosure law firm and its wholly-owned affiliates—a process server and a title search company (defendants)—have agreed to pay $4.6 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations claiming that between 2009 and 2018 the defendants systematically generated false and inflated bills for foreclosure-related and eviction-related expenses and caused those expenses to be paid by Fannie Mae. The settlement also resolves claims arising from the same misconduct pertaining to eviction-related expenses that were submitted to and ultimately paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The DOJ alleges that the process server and title search company both added “additional charges to the costs charged by independent contractors and otherwise took actions that increased costs and expenses,” which were then submitted by the law firm for reimbursement. According to the DOJ, “[l]awyers are not above the law. For years, the [law firm] submitted bills to Fannie Mae and the VA that contained inflated and unnecessary charges. This Office will continue to hold accountable those who seek to achieve profits by fraudulent conduct.” The DOJ states that Fannie Mae’s Servicing Guide requires “all foreclosure costs and expenses be ‘actual, reasonable, and necessary,’ and that foreclosure law firms ‘must make every effort to reduce foreclosure-related costs and expenses in a manner that is consistent with all applicable laws.’”
The DOJ further notes that the defendants agreed to pay an additional $1,518,000 to resolve separate False Claims Act claims pursued by the whistleblower.
On November 15, the SEC released its 2018 Annual Report to Congress on its Whistleblower Program, as required under § 924(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act and § 21(F)(g)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Report, which covers October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018, indicates that the SEC received 202 FCPA-related whistleblower tips during the reporting year. Those 202 FCPA tips account for only 3.82 percent of the tips received in that period. While the overall number of whistleblower tips has steadily risen over the past 4 years, the number of FCPA tips has remained fairly steady. In 2015, there were 186 (4.74 percent of the tips received); in 2016 there were 238 (5.64 percent of the tips received); and in 2017 there were 210 (4.68 percent of the tips received). This relative consistency contrasts with the number of offering fraud tips, which jumped from 758 in 2017 to 1,054 in 2018.
In addition to providing statistics and background on the whistleblower program, the Report discusses rule amendments proposed earlier this year. In particular, the Report reviews proposed amendments to SEC Rule 21F-2 (Whistleblower Status and Retaliation Protection) that are intended to bring the rules in line with the Digital Realty Trust v. Somers decision. The proposed amendments would include instituting a uniform definition of whistleblower that requires the individual to have submitted the information “in writing” to the SEC.
On November 14, 2018, a three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments for a life science research and diagnostics company hoping to overturn a February 2017 jury verdict ordering the company to pay its former General Counsel and Secretary $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The former employee’s complaint alleged that the company had fired him for being an FCPA whistleblower. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the company paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former employee’s report to the Audit Committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China, allegations that did not result in additional penalties against the company.
The company appealed the former employee's award on the grounds that the jury was erroneously instructed that the SEC’s rules or regulations forbid bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations were the result of the former employee’s lack of due diligence; that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to the timing of his pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that he did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank in light of his reporting only internally and not to the SEC (pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in another case). During the argument, one member of the circuit panel reportedly expressed doubt concerning the company’s jury instruction argument, and another told counsel for the company, “I don’t see how this can be reversed on the theory you’re offering.”
On October 19, the DOJ announced a $13.2 million settlement with a mortgage lender resolving allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by falsely certifying compliance with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance requirements in violation of the False Claims Act (FCA). Specifically, the government alleged that, between 2006 and 2011, the lender failed to follow proper mortgage underwriting and certification rules as a participant in the direct endorsement lender program and knowingly submitted loans for FHA insurance that did not qualify. Additionally, DOJ alleged that the lender “improperly incentivized underwriters and knowingly failed to perform quality control reviews.” Under the direct endorsement lender program, FHA does not review a loan for compliance with FHA requirements before it is endorsed for FHA insurance; accordingly lenders are required to follow rules designed to ensure that they are properly underwriting and certifying mortgages for FHA insurance. This settlement also resolves a related whistleblower lawsuit filed under the FCA, in which the former employee of a related entity will receive approximately $2 million.
Based on media reports, DOJ’s Fraud Section is reportedly investigating some part of a professional baseball organization for possible FCPA violations related to recruitment of international players, particularly related to immigration issues for players from Latin America. Reports indicate that the investigation was initiated when a whistleblower provided the FBI with information and documents last year during spring training. Since then, several witnesses have reportedly already been subpoenaed and testified before a federal grand jury in connection with the investigation.
A spokesperson for the organization stated that they had not been contacted by federal authorities regarding an investigation, and the two franchises that appear to be most at issue declined to comment to the media on the matter.
On September 24, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of almost $4 million to an individual residing in a foreign country. The SEC determined the individual voluntarily provided critical information and continued assistance, which helped the agency bring a successful enforcement action. The SEC now has awarded over $326 million to 59 individuals since 2012.
On September 6, the SEC announced a whistleblower award totaling more than $54 million— $39 million to one (the second-largest award given under the SEC’s whistleblower program) and $15 million to another—for critical information and continued assistance, which helped the agency bring an enforcement action. The redacted order highlights the denial of related-action claims by both claimants and notes an exception made to the “voluntary submission” requirement for claimant two.
According to the order, the SEC denied claimant one’s request for an additional award based on another agency’s related action, because the claimant failed to demonstrate the causal relationship required to establish that the “submission significantly contributed to the success of the [related action].” Specifically, the SEC noted that the claimant’s information was never directly transmitted to the other agency, which relied on the SEC’s order to pursue its action. The SEC rejected the claimant’s argument that providing information directly to another agency would be “at war with Congress’ clear instruction that the identity of a whistleblower must be protected” due to the fact that the other agency may not offer the same anonymity as possible under the SEC’s whistleblower program. The SEC notes that while a whistleblower may choose not to provide the information to another agency themselves, the rules allow for the SEC to transmit the information directly, while requiring the other agency to maintain confidentiality, which was not done in this case.
The SEC also denied claimant two’s related action request, concluding that the claimant should seek an award through the alternative program available from the other agency. The SEC noted that if the claimant were to receive a related-action award there would be the potential that the cumulative award would exceed the 30-percent ceiling established by Congress and would produce an “irrational result” encouraging “multiple ‘bites at the apple’” as it would allow whistleblowers to have multiple opportunities to adjudicate and obtain separate rewards on the same enforcement actions.
Notably, for claimant two, the redacted order demonstrates that the SEC made an exception to the “voluntary” submission requirements under the rules. Specifically, Rule 21F-4(a)—in order to create an incentive for whistleblowers to proactively provide information about possible violations—requires that a whistleblower “must come forward before the government or regulatory authorities designated in the rule seek information from the whistleblower.” In this instance, it was undisputed that claimant two provided the SEC information after an investigative review by another agency; however, the SEC exercised discretionary authority to grant a limited waiver of Rule 21F-4(a) and permit an award to claimant two. The SEC determined that a limited waiver was appropriate because, although claimant 2 previously “appeared before [the other agency] for an investigative interview” regarding the same violations, at the time of that appearance the claimant was unaware of the information that would ultimately be deemed by the SEC to be the “critical basis” for the whistleblower claim. The SEC concluded that once claimant two became aware of the critical information, they promptly reported it to both agencies, despite no legal obligation to do so and having no other “self-interested motive to come forward,” achieving a primary policy goal of the program to encourage prompt reporting of information about possible securities law violations.
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "NMLS usage" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Jeffrey S. Hydrick to discuss "State legislative update" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Kathryn L. Ryan to speak at the "Business model primer" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Dynamic customer due diligence and beneficial ownership from KYC to ongoing CDD and the new rule implementation" at the Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti-Money Laundering
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Preparing for servicing exams in the current regulatory environment" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory risks of convenience fees" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- APPROVED Webcast: NMLS Annual Conference & Ombudsman Meeting: Review and recap
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Servicing super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent high profile enforcement actions" at the Florida International Bankers Association AML Compliance Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to provide "Regulatory update – California and beyond" at the National Equipment Finance Association Summit
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Aaron C. Mahler to discuss "Regulation B/fair lending" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Heidi M. Bauer to discuss "'So you want to form a joint venture' — Licensing strategies for successful JVs" at RESPRO26
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where are we heading?" at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to to discuss "DC policy: Everything but the kitchen sink" at CBA Live
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from ABLV and other major cases involving inadequate compliance oversight" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A year in the life of the CDD final rule: A first anniversary assessment" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program