Catching up on backdating

Many years ago, I heard a businessman who had been convicted of tax fraud describe how he and his confederates had, while their crime was underway, minimized the wrongfulness of what they were doing, which included backdating documents: we used to joke, he said, that we were so dedicated that sometimes we were still working as late in the year as “December 38th.”  While perhaps a cute story (at least for this time of year)  more relevant for C&E professionals  (and to conflict of interest history) are the backdating cases which began in 2005/2006 and involved the retroactive dating of stock options issued to corporate officers to a time preceding a run-up in the price of the company’s shares.  While the act of granting lucrative options was itself not itself problematic, the backdating was kept secret from the shareholders, who unwittingly were made to bear the cost of this largess and which therefore could  be seen as a securities fraud.

A large number of class action lawsuits were brought against directors and others for claimed breaches of fiduciary duty arising from this backdating, but in the years when this was happening many observers sought to minimize the wrongfulness of the conduct.  From much of the commentary at this time,  one could easily get a sense that these were mere technical violations and that it would all turn out to be much ado about nothing – i.e., no more serious than meeting a year-end deadline by working until “December 38th” seemed at the time it was happening.

However, in a recent post in the D&O Diary,  Adam Savett, Director, Class Action Services at KCC,  surveys the relevant cases and notes that “early prognosticators … were significantly off in predicting outcomes … of [these] cases.  The settlements were not insubstantial, having a combined value of more than $2.38 Billion….” Also, 82% of the cases settled – a considerably higher number than the historical average for securities class actions (65%).

Also noteworthy here is a comment on the D&O Diary  posted  by Michael Klausner  and Jason Hegland of the Stanford Law School to support Savett’s “point that the options backdating cases turned out to [be] serious…” They note: “Individual defendants made above-average personal, out-of-pocket payments into settlements of backdating cases” and “[t]he percentage of settlements paid fully or partially by insurers was lower in backdating cases than in other cases.”

How can C&E professionals use this page of history in training directors and officers?  Not to show that backdating is wrong, as I think that would (now) be seen as unnecessary.  Rather, and together with other scandals involving directors (see discussions collected here), the backdating cases can be used to make a more general point about the need for directors to have a heightened sense of ethical awareness. Put otherwise, directors and officers should not count on their instincts – or insurance – to save them from the consequences of an ethical lapse.

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