Disclosure and Management

In many instances, COIs are not categorically prohibited but rather required to be disclosed, so that the organization can consider whether to permit the COI, and, if so, under what terms and conditions. This section of the blog (and the sub-categories below) will explore a variety of issues related to these aspects of COI compliance.

Conflicts of interest in serving on another company’s board of directors

Some codes of conduct and C&E policies and certifications identify outside board service as a potential COI.   What should an  analysis of COIs of this sort  entail?  This is a topic about which relatively little has apparently been published.  Below are links to some helpful resources on it combined with a few hopefully helpful thoughts of my own.

First, in this post on the Business Ethics Blog, Chris MacDonald notes that serving on a board typically involves significant compensation (and hence should be considered an interest for COI purposes); an individual’s board member duties could conflict with her employee duties if the entities in question did business with each other; and given the sheer time commitment expected of board service, there could be a significant time-management conflict in situations of this sort.  This is a good foundation for analyzing COIs in these types of situations, to which one might add that even where the two entities don’t do business with each other a conflict could arise if they both do business with a given third party, i.e., employee of Company A joins the board of Company B, which is seeking to do business with Company C, a supplier to Company A.  (This would not necessarily be a COI – but, depending on a variety of circumstances, might be one.)

Second, another valuable post on this topic comes from Meghan Daniels of SAI Global – who offers various questions companies might ask when considering whether to allow an employee to join the board of another entity based on: a) the employee’s role at the company; b) the time commitment involved in the contemplated board service; c) the status of the external company; and d) the relationship between the two entities.

Third, here is a useful code provision on board service from a publicly available code of conduct:

Entergy recognizes that there may be limited cases where it is in the Company’s best interest for you to hold a position on the board of directors of a for-profit entity not affiliated with Entergy. However, the position must not place you or the Company in a potential conflict of interests situation, must meet all regulatory and legal requirements, and must be appropriately disclosed to all relevant parties. There are certain laws and regulations that can impact this service and you must discuss the situation with your supervisor and receive appropriate approvals prior to taking action.

Two points about this language: a) the need to make disclosure to “all relevant parties” is important, as disclosing to the company alone might not be enough; b) the policy appropriately focuses on the company’s interest in deciding the issue at hand.  Note, too, that the laws and regulations referenced here may be largely specific to the industry that this company is in, and being familiar with any relevant laws applicable to one’s own organization can be critically important for addressing issues of this sort.

Fourth, worth considering  (although perhaps of less immediately obvious relevance to our topic) is a judicial  decision in a case called Raley  v. Superior Court.  In Raley, the Court ordered the disqualification of a lawyer’s firm  from participation in a litigation against a corporation that was owned by a  trust, the trustee of which was a bank on whose board the lawyer sat, based, in part, upon the fact that the lawyer’s fiduciary duties to the bank and trust  “require him to make every reasonable effort to maximize” the assets of the  trust, which could lead to his acting contrary to the firm’s client in the litigation.

As relevant to the issue addressed in this posting, this language underscores  just how strong the ethical and legal duty that arises from board service is – which, in turn could support a strict approach  to determining COIs when an employee of one entity seeks to serve on the board  of another.  The case is indeed a reminder that serving on a board is serious business,  and before agreeing to such service an individual – and, if relevant, her  employer – should think through all that that entails from an ethical and legal  perspective.

Fifth, in some situations a company might decide to permit an employee to join another company’s board subject to management of any COIs flowing therefrom.  If going this route, all concerned need to consider the implicatons vis a vis the confidentiality of the latter’s information.

Finally, I  should stress that there are a host of possible advantages to an organization in  having one of its employees serving on the board of another entity (as reflected in the language from the Entergy code).  Here is a good piece identifying some of those   and my post should not be read as suggesting any presumption against  permitting such service – it is offered only to help identify what some of the  relevant COI issues might be.

Conflicts of Interest in the News: 123011 Edition

This is not all the COI news that’s fit to print, but hopefully some items of interest that you might not otherwise see – with notes on why I think they’re noteworthy.

COIs and Government

NY State “Attorney  General Eric Schneiderman has asked the state’s 932 towns to show his office their ethics codes in an effort to bolster self-policing by local government.” As explained in the article, “one practical aim is providing the attorney general’s office with referral information for calls from New Yorkers with concerns, which have recently included questions about officials with connections to wind power and hydrofracking interests.”

This seems like an important initiative, given the COI risks that can occur on local levels of government – risks exacerbated by often weak controls.   Because, over the years, the NY AG’s office has been a leader in addressing many COI issues, I imagine that other states’ enforcement officials will be watching this effort as it unfolds.  The story may also be of particular interest to private sector organizations that deal with local governments.

A story about conflicts that occur when individuals have more than one government role   This not your typical public sector COI, which involves a conflict between a public duty and a private interest.  (But it is not altogether unique, either: NY’s legendary “Power Broker” Robert Moses  once held twelve public posts  at  the same time.)  More generally, the  story shows that an interest for COI purposes  can itself be a duty – something we’ll return to next week when we look at COIs arising from  outside board service.

COIs in Business

For Wall  Street Deal Makers, Sometimes It Pays to Be Bad (may require registration).  This is about COIs in the buy-out area –  which  can indeed be a COI minefield.  The story is  interesting for, among other reasons, showing the difficulties  that shareholders  can face in seeking redress for COIs in corporate governance settings.  (Also, this is the first time in my more than thirty  years as a lawyer that I’ve heard a court use the word “icky.” )

Drug company  money on rise for 2 Minn. clinics Among other things, the piece a) has an  interesting discussion of conflict of interest management plans, which can be  crucial for this one – very significant – type of COI; b) reveals a split in  approaches between the two institutions at issue (the Mayo Clinic and the University  of Minnesota) on whether to have a de minimis threshold for COI reviews. (Both COI management and de minimis COIs are topics we’ll explore in 2012.)

COIs and Criminal Law

Prosecutor’s  Literary Contract Creates Conflict of Interest. Even though he cancelled the contract  and returned the advance, the court held, “this is a bell that cannot be  unrung.”  Note that cases concerning COIs  in the legal profession are rarely useful for analyzing those in business  organizations, but this one may be an exception for at least some cases where a  party tries fecklessly to “undo” a COI. 

 

 

Weekend News Round-Up: How Conflicts of Interest Can Hurt

Probably the two most prominent COI stories recently in the news concern insider trading by members of Congress and  David Stern’s running both the NBA and one of its teams.

But the most instructive piece about COIs that I’ve seen in the past few days concerns a woman with MS learning from a state data base of pharma company payments to doctors that her physician had received more than $300,000 in such payments, with “the makers of the two drugs he had recommended to her listed as major contributors.”  She notes: “As a patient experiencing a neurological disease that has no known cause and no known cure, I expected my neurologist to be direct and honest with me. I expected honesty in interpreting my MRIs; in giving me a prognosis; in explaining his rationale behind treatment recommendations and in providing verifiable, scientific information about them; in educating me about MS; and in telling me about any conflicts of interest with drug companies. Actually, I expected that my neurologist would have no financial conflicts of interest whatsoever.”

The story powerfully illustrates the general point that COIs  can be devastating  to important  relationships of trust – and, as you can imagine, the woman found it impossible to continue receiving treatment from this doctor.

The story also shows that disclosure can be helpful, but note this conclusion. “At the end of [my conversation with my new doctor,] I asked if many patients inquire about possible conflicts of interest. He shook his head ‘no.’ I was the only one.”

 

“Reverse Conflicts of Interest”

Consider the following (disguised) case, from some years ago….

A company enters into a complex business arrangement where one of its managers has a relationship with the other entity.  The relationship is fully disclosed and approved pursuant to company policy on COI waivers.  After time, the arrangement runs into business difficulties.  Although the company has lived up to its contractual obligations, the other entity seems to feel that the company should have done more to make the arrangement work.  Based partly on that, some employees of the company question whether that entity had been promised more than was disclosed by the manager, causing the employees to take various defensive measures which put further strain on the arrangement. Ultimately, the arrangement collapses.

As a general matter, if properly disclosed and approved, some COIs can be waived (although some should not be permitted under any circumstances).  Such approvals can be either a true “green light” or subject to being managed on an ongoing basis, i.e., a “yellow light.”

Like many C&E-related determinations, this type of decision tends to be made based on a balancing of costs versus benefits (hopefully, with a reasonably high burden of showing that the latter outweigh the former).

The case above illustrates what I believe is a factor that should generally be considered by companies deciding whether to grant a COI waiver: whether there will be reasonable possibility of overcompensating for the COI in ways that are harmful to the company.  The potential for such “reverse COIs” could turn on many factors – perhaps most significantly, on the extent to which the contemplated relationship must rely on trust.  (That is, the greater the need for trust, the greater the possibility of suspicion – at least as a general matter.)

Historically, reverse COIs may not have been common.  But as sensitivity to COIs has grown dramatically over the past few years (the subject of a coming post), they seem more likely to occur than ever before, and should be on a company’s radar in making COI waiver determinations.