SEC Inspector General Reveals Investigation into Possible Bias of SEC ALJs

The Inspector General of the SEC issued an Interim Report on August 7, 2015 which indicated that he is in the midst of an inquiry into allegations that SEC administrative law judges may have been subjected to pressure from other in the performance of their duties.  According to the Interim Report, the “investigation was initiated on June 30, 2015, based on information provided by Erica Williams, Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of the Chair, concerning alleged potential issues of fairness and bias in the SEC’s administrative proceedings, including those introduced in the Timbervest, LLC (Timbervest) matter.”  On receipt of this information, the “OIG determined it would investigate allegations of bias on the part of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) in the Commission’s administrative proceedings.”

The information that stirred the inquiry included the May 6, 2015 Wall Street Journal article by Jean Eaglesham, which reported that the SEC’s Division of Enforcement prevailed in about 90% of the cases sent to the SEC administrative law judges (see SEC Wins With In-House Judges: Agency prevails against around 90% of defendants when it sends cases to its administrative law judges), and a Securities Diary June 30, 2015 blog post entitled “SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed.”  The Interim Report also referenced another, May 7, 2015 Securities Diary post “Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal,” which reported on the content of the May 6 Wall Street Journal article.

Ms. Williams told the OIG that “Chair Mary Jo White requested an OIG investigation of the alleged bias issue because the identified concerns could impact all ALJs and the SEC administrative proceedings.  The Interim Report can be read here: Interim Report of Investigation by SEC Office of Inspector General into Possible SEC ALJ Bias.

The Interim Report says:

The OIG reviewed the Securities Diary and WSJ news articles that Williams identified, which included the following statements attributed to former ALJ McEwen: she thought the system was slanted against defendants at times; she came under fire from Chief ALJ Murray for finding too often in favor of defendants; Chief ALJ Murray questioned McEwen’s loyalty to the SEC; McEwen retired as a result of the criticism; and SEC judges were expected to work on the assumption that “the burden was on the people who were accused to show that they didn’t do what the agency said they did.”

The Interim Report discussed an OIG interview with ALJ Cameron Elliot, who presided over the Timbervest administrative trial, and described that interview as follows:

The OIG interviewed ALJ Elliot concerning allegations of potential issues of fairness and bias in the SEC’s administrative proceedings.  Elliot denied bias during his reviews and rulings and stated that he independently made his decisions.  Concerning his decision not to provide an affidavit after being invited to do so by a Commission order, Elliot said he received the invitation to provide an affidavit from the Office of the Secretary.  He said that he informed Chief ALJ Murray of the existence of the invitation.  However, he said he adhered to the instructions in the order which requested him to “not consult with anyone at the Commission in the preparation of his affidavit concerning the substance thereof.”  Elliot said that he strictly followed those instructions and that he informed Chief ALJ Murray of the existence of the instructions.  At an office meeting, he informed everyone in the Office of ALJ that he had responded to the order.  When asked, Elliot said he did not receive any direction or guidance from anyone, including Chief ALJ Murray, on how he should respond to the invitation.  Elliot said he had declined to provide an affidavit, stating he had “multiple reasons why [he] decided not to provide a response” but declined to provide any of those reasons to the OIG.  Furthermore, Elliot denied being influenced by anyone on “how to decide [his] cases or suggest or make [him] biased in any fashion.”

The OIG also interviewed ALJ Brenda Murray, who “denied influencing matters before the ALJs and explained that she is responsible only for assigning the ALJs’ workload.”  She also “stated that there was no merit to the allegations of bias as alleged in the WSJ article.”

Regarding the status of the investigation, the OIG reports that it “remains ongoing,” and it “is still gathering additional facts and completing investigative steps, and new information will be reported accordingly.”  At this point, however, “the OIG has not developed any evidence to support the allegations of bias in ALJs’ decisions in the Commission’s administrative proceedings.”

It is troubling, however, that there is no reference to any effort to interview former ALJ Lillian McEwen, who made the troubling statements to the Wall Street Journal.  Ms. McEwen later reportedly said that she would be willing to be interviewed on this matter by the Commissioners.  It is important for the OIG to lay out precisely what efforts have been made to flesh out her views on this issue before issuing any clean bill of health for the SEC’s administrative process.

In addition, the statistics showing an unusually high success rate for the Enforcement Division should be confirmed or rejected through a thorough analysis, and if a statistically significant higher success rate is found for administrative proceedings over the Division’s federal court prosecutions, it is essential that the OIG make every effort to determine that the source of that differential is not, even in part, attributable to inherent biases in either the ALJs themselves or the process they use to reach their results.  Anything short of this will not put the serious due process and fairness issues to rest.  The courts — including the Supreme Court in a key employment discrimination case this past term — often accept that a statistically provable disparate impact can provide evidence of underlying concerns.  That is certainly not a precise analogy for what may be happening here, but if there is a compelling statistical case (and a 90% win rate, or even 100% for some judges, suggests there may be), it should not be ignored.

This being said, it is encouraging that Chair Mary Jo White has seen fit to cause this inquiry to occur.  The apparent determination not to make the existence of the inquiry public is a little perplexing, given the publicity surrounding the accusations.  Nevertheless, she should get credit where it is due.  Those facing prosecution in a possibly biased forum argue, however, that it is not enough to turn to an in-house IG to investigate possible in-house bias.  Lynn Tilton, who is challenging the constitutionality of her administrative enforcement action, tweeted in response: “This defendant feels no comfort that the SEC’s Internal IG investigates bias by its own Judges in its own Courts.”  This skepticism that the SEC’s IG can perform a truly independent investigation must be met by an investigative process so thorough and informed that it is beyond reproach.

Straight Arrow

August 10, 2015

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