Archive for November, 2011

Watchdog (SEC) v. Watchdog (FINRA): Destruction, Doctoring and Deflection

Monday, November 14th, 2011

In the first settlement of its kind, FINRA settled with the SEC on October 27, 2011 due to allegations over a 2008 incident where a regional Kansas City office of FINRA doctored documents.  The alleged doctored documents were from three internal staff meetings, where information was either edited or deleted and then provided to the SEC with the “inaccurate and incomplete” changes. Mary Shapiro, currently the Chairman of the SEC, is in an interesting spot as she was Chief Executive of FINRA at the time of the alleged wrongdoing.  She apparently had no direct involvement with the decision to take action against FINRA.

The motives for doctoring the documents are unclear, and so is whether or not the alterations of the documents led to any material damage other than FINRA’s diminished credibility.  Ironically, the SEC has had its own struggles in recent months with a slew of articles published in various newspapers highlighting their own challenges with document retention and the improper destruction of documents. Both of these scenarios have been called to light by whistleblowers within their respective agencies.

These antics certainly pose the question: Is it a good use of taxpayer money to have regulatory agencies fighting each other over document retention and record keeping practices? The answer is probably no. But the first question begs the second: If they don’t do it, who will?  While information management is not the sexiest part of the SEC and FINRA’s responsibilities, it certainly is an important one and the foundation of their information intelligence.  Without proper document retention and information governance, the probability of connecting the dots to discover insider trading or other malfeasance is low.  Moreover, in order for agencies to retain credibility they need to be able to locate documents with ease and speed and those documents must be truthful and accurate.

Because FINRA is a self-regulatory firm for securities and is overseen by the SEC, it seems appropriate that they investigate matters like the one at hand.  According to the SEC, the 2008 incident is the third instance in the past eight years where an employee of FINRA, or its predecessor, the National Association of Security Dealers, has provided altered or misleading documents to the SEC.  It remains to be seen if this is intentional on the part of FINRA to conceal undesirable facts or to promote an item on their agenda, or if in fact they are simply negligent with regard to their record keeping policies.  Either way, it is a problem for the SEC and the government in general as it undermines agency credibility and compromises the ability to intelligently leverage information.   This settlement also does no favors for FINRA at a time when they aim to expand their 4,600 base of supervisory authority to include 10,000 more investment advisory firms.

So, what can be done about this behavior and the risks it poses? Corporations and governments are facing the same issues that information governance poses due to the data explosion and the growing complexity of data sources today.  At a minimum, there needs to be a policy in place that governs how data, regardless of form, is handled and disposed of in the information lifecycle.  It also makes sense to form an audit committee within the government that can inspect and assess the information management practices of each agency, as well as serve as a  third party mediator between agencies when these challenges arise.  This is a good idea for two reasons.  One, agencies can focus on their responsibilities instead of getting sidetracked with issues they are not expert in, like document retention or record management.  Next, this problem has reached a point that it’s necessary to appoint an independent group to audit the government due to the data explosion and pace of technology today.  We have the SEC and FINRA to watch the financial industry and provide us with assurance that business is being conducted in a lawful manner.  We don’t need the SEC or FINRA to take up document retention as another responsibility, as there are other professionals that can do that more effectively and independently.

While expansion of government is not the goal of forming yet another committee, this committee could potentially free up agencies to do more of the work they are charged with.  This would also promote standardization across agencies and regulatory bodies, which would be a giant step in the right direction as data volumes grow.  The actions that resulted in this settlement were remedial in nature.  FINRA took decisive action to air a podcast about document integrity and scheduled an agency-wide town hall meeting addressing the same for all current and new employees.  They also hired an independent outside consultant to provide additional staff training on document retention and integrity.  This will be a continual educational process for the private and public sector, and employee training and auditing the process will be the lynchpins for success.  The element of deflection is also at work here, as the SEC is not a model example of best practices for document retention and the moment.

The SEC is working through allegations of document destruction, FINRA is accused of document doctoring, but all these assertions circle back to the central theme of having a document retention policy and compliance with that policy.  This naturally leads to the need for education and training, and the ultimate auditing of the process for compliance.  In this rare case of watchdog bites watchdog, three points become clear: 1) The SEC has a higher and best use other than policing these issues; 2) information management has reached a point that it requires a separate and independent body to monitor and regulate allegations of misconduct; and 3) sometimes it takes a dog biting a dog to truly illustrate the magnitude of a problem.

Fulbright’s 2011 Litigation Trends Report Predicts a Constant Litigation Pace and a Swell of Regulatory Investigations

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Fulbright & Jaworski has conducted their Litigation Trends survey for nearly the past decade and the results are always interesting since they tend to capture the mindset of inside counsel and litigators as they anticipate the upcoming year.  In their 8th Annual Litigation Trends Survey, Fulbright noted that 92% of U.S. respondents predict that litigation will either increase or stay the same in the upcoming year.  This trend bodes well for players in the litigation services and eDiscovery sectors, and confirms the counter cyclical nature of the industry.  Breaking down the perceived increases across industry verticals, the Survey noted that the biggest anticipated jumps were in the technology, financial services, healthcare and insurance sectors.  Meanwhile energy (the leading sector from the prior year) was one of the few that predicted a decrease.

Going behind the scenes, there were a number of factors that caused respondents to predict litigation increases.  First and foremost, respondents indicated that “stricter regulation was the number one reason” for the increases, particularly with insurance, financial services, health care and retail sectors.  These concerns around regulatory compliance have been increasingly keeping GCs and corporate boards awake as the governance climate continues to heat up.  This regulation driver showed a demonstrable increase with 46% of all respondents having retained outside counsel to assist with regulatory proceedings, up from 37% in the prior year.  The Survey noted that U.S. companies facing a regulatory investigation were most likely to be under pressure from the DOJ (27%), State Attorney General (24%), OSHA (18%), the EPA (16%) and U.S. Attorney (13%).  Also on the regulatory front, U.S. respondents have increasingly begun to recognize the potential jurisdictional reach of the U.K. Bribery Act, with 25% of U.S. companies stating that they have already conducted a review of existing procedures in preparation for implementation.

In addition to managing risk, most in-house counsel are keenly concerned with controlling litigation costs.  The good news here is that associated costs are predicted to be generally flat.  Yet, eDiscovery remained the largest category targeted for increased spending, with 18% of respondents making this their top priority.  Interestingly, though, large enterprises seem to have been doing a good job of getting eDiscovery expenses under control (likely by taking expensive elements of the EDRM in-house), with these expenses declining among the largest companies, from 42% last year to 24% this year.

The Survey noted that the use of cloud computing has gained speed, with 34% of all public companies using the cloud.  And yet, only 40% of those companies using cloud computing have had “to preserve and/or collect data from the cloud in connection with actual or threatened litigation, disputes or investigations.”  This number appears curiously light, and it should definitely rise during the upcoming year as the plaintiff’s bar gets more savvy about this relatively new source of responsive electronically stored information (ESI).

On the narrower eDiscovery front, the Survey honed in on newer issues like cooperation.  Here, the Survey noted that this Sedona-sponsored concept still hasn’t completely taken hold, with nearly 40% of all respondents claiming that “their company has not made the effort to be more transparent or cooperative” due to a litigation strategy of “defending on all fronts.”  This area appears particularly muddled, with one third saying their previous attempts haven’t been reciprocated and another quarter feeling that their company was already transparent.

All in all,  the 2011 Fulbright Litigation Trends Survey notes trends that appear to be largely in line with the primary drivers of (1) managing risk and (2) lowering litigation costs.  On the risk side, compliance with an increasingly complex regulatory environment is offsetting any potential lull in the litigation environment.  And, on the cost side, eDiscovery continues to be a hot button issue, particularly with the relatively new challenges associated with ESI distributed on social media, cloud computing and mobile sources.

ECPA, 4th Amendment, and FOIA: A Trident of Laws Collide on the 25th Birthday of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Google has publicly released the number of U.S. Government requests it had for email productions in the six months preceding December 31, 2009.  They have had to comply with 94% of these 4,601 requests.  Granted, many of these requests were search warrants or subpoenas, but many were not.  Now take 4,601 and multiply it by at least 3 for other social media sources for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  The number is big – and so is the concern over how this information is being obtained.

What has becoming increasingly common (and alarming at the same time) is the way this electronically stored information (ESI) is being obtained from third party service providers by the U.S. Government. Some of these requests were actually secret court orders; it is unclear how many of the matters were criminal or civil.  Many of these service providers (Sonic, Google, Microsoft, etc.) are challenging these requests and most often losing. They are losing on two fronts:  1) they are not allowed to inform the data owner about the requests, nor the subsequent production of the emails, and 2) they are forced to actually produce the information.  For example, the U.S. Government obtained one of these secret orders to get WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum’s email contact list of the people he has corresponded with over the past two years.  Both Google and Sonic.net were ordered to turn over information and Sonic challenged  the order and lost.  This has forced technology companies to band together to lobby Congress to require search warrants in digital investigations.

There are three primary laws operating at this pivotal intersection that affect the discovery of ESI that resides with third party service providers, and these laws are in a car wreck with no ambulance in sight.  First, there is the antiquated Federal Law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, over which there is much debate at present.  To put the datedness of the ECPA in perspective, it was written before the internet.  This law is the basis that allows the government to secretly obtain information from email and cell phones without a search warrant. Not having a search warrant is in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.  In the secret order scenario, the creator of data is denied their right to know about the search and seizure (as they would if their homes were being searched, for example) as it is transpiring with the third party.

Where a secret order has been issued and emails have been obtained from a third party service provider, we see the courts treating email much differently than traditional mail and telephone lines.  However, the intent of the law was to give electronic communications the same protections that mail and phone calls have enjoyed for some time. Understandably, the law did not anticipate the advent of the technology we have today.  This is the first collision, and the reason the wheels have gone off the car, since the standard under the ECPA sets a lower bar for email than that of the former two modes of communication.  The government must only show “reasonable grounds” that the records would be “relevant and material” to an investigation, criminal or civil, compared to the other higher standard.

The third law in this collision is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  While certain exceptions and allowances are made for national security and in criminal investigations, these secret orders are not able to be seen by the person whose information has been requested.  Additionally, the public wants to see these requests and these orders, especially if they have no chance of fighting them.  What remains to be seen is what our rights are under FOIA to see these orders, either as a party or a non-related individual to the investigation as a matter of public record.  U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-VT), the author of the ECPA, acknowledged in no uncertain terms that the law is “significantly outdated and outpaced by rapid changes in technology.”   He has since introduced a bill with many changes that third party service providers have lobbied for to bring the ECPA up to date. The irony of this situation is that the law was intended to provide the same protections for all modes of communication, but in fact makes it easier for the government to request information without the author even knowing.

This is one of the most important issues now facing individuals and the government in the discovery of ESI during investigations and litigation.  A third party service provider of cloud offerings is really no different than a utility company, and the same paradigm can exist as it does with the U.S. Postal Service and the telephone companies when looking to discover this information under the Fourth Amendment, where a warrant is required. The law looks to be changing to reflect this and FOIA should allow the public to access these orders.  Amendments to the Act have been introduced by Senator Leahy, and we can look forward to the common sense changes he proposes that are necessary.  The American people don’t like secrets. Lawyers, get ready to embrace the revisions into your practice by reading up on the changes as they will impact your practices significantly in the near future.