Moot compliance court for corporate directors?

In their paper, “Short-Changing Compliance,”  John Armour (University of Oxford), Jeffrey N. Gordon (Columbia Law School), Geeyoung Min (Columbia Law School), argue: “Corporate compliance programs play a central role in society’s current response. Prosecutors give firms incentives—through discounts to penalties—to implement compliance programs guiding and monitoring employees’ behavior. However, focusing on the incentives of firms overlooks the perspective of managers, who decide how much firms invest in compliance.” They further note: “stock-based pay, ubiquitous for corporate executives, creates systematic incentives to short-change compliance. Compliance is a long-term investment for firms, whereas managers’ time-horizon is truncated at the date they expect to liquidate stock. Moreover, investors find it hard to value compliance programs, because firms routinely disclose little or nothing about their compliance activities.” Also, “stock-compensated managers prefer not to disclose compliance, because it can reveal private information about a firm’s propensity to misconduct: the greater a firm’s misconduct risk, the more valuable to it is an investment in compliance. As a result, both managers and markets are likely myopic about compliance.”

To remedy all of this they “propose more assertive directors’ liability for compliance failures,…” but which would avoid incenting directors to overinvest in compliance.

I agree that the prospect of director liability for compliance failures under existing law is weak, as described in this recent post.. However, I don’t see the political will among shareholders, courts or legislatures to change that.

But should it come to pass, the next issue would be how the standard would be applied. In this regard, the authors propose: “[I]f the firm resolves a compliance enforcement action, criminal or civil, through payment of a fine or accepting some other sanction, an appropriate board committee, perhaps the governance committee, should trigger an ‘accountability proceeding.’ This proceeding could be presided over by a panel of compliance and industry experts, perhaps three, who would conduct an internal investigation that would (i) evaluate the compliance system within the firm as well as the particulars of the compliance failure, (ii) assess the extent of directors’ responsibility, and (iii) determine the appropriate clawback of the accumulated stock of responsible former and current directors.”

Indeed,  one might – as part of board compliance program governance –  deploy a “moot court” accountability proceeding to help directors avoid ever having to face the “real deal.” I suggest this because much of the underlying logic of compliance programs is based on the realization that merely threatening punishment is not enough to prevent wrongdoing. And just as employees need training in various compliance areas for that threat to be meaningful, so directors should be periodically reminded about the risks they face.

As noted above, the heightened standard of board liability for compliance failures proposed by the authors is a long way from coming to pass. But, even under the current, relatively lax standards, the “moot court” idea might be worth trying, as it would undoubtedly cause some directors to focus on compliance more than they currently do.

For an earlier post on compliance incentives and managers click here.

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