July 23, 2007

Dodging the SEC Bullet a Second Time

For most senior executives, in particular top legal officers, an SEC action can often be considered the ultimate CLM – a Career Limiting Maneuver. Apparently that is not the case for David Drummond, who serves as Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer of Google. With two SEC actions now behind him, Drummond seems to be going strong.

Last week, the SEC announced a settlement of its actions against four former executives of SmartForce PLC, its former outside auditor, and the company’s former audit engagement partner. In what boiled down to a revenue recognition case, the SEC alleged that SmartForce’s senior financial personnel had prepared financial statements that recognized revenue improperly from various types of transactions, including multiple-element arrangements, reciprocal transactions and reseller agreements. The SEC noted that Drummond, who served as Chief Financial Officer of SmartForce, was ultimately responsible for the financial statements and violated the Exchange Act reporting provisions by failing to determine whether SmartForce was improperly recognizing revenue on reseller agreements, failing to communicate information about a reciprocal transaction to accounting staff, and failing to determine whether the reciprocal transaction complied with GAAP. As noted in an article from Friday’s WSJ, David Drummond’s attorney stated: “In retrospect, Mr. Drummond acknowledges that he would have been better served in his role at SmartForce had he possessed an accounting background.” In the settlement, Drummond agreed to disgorgement and a civil penalty totaling over $600,000 plus a cease & desist order, but he faces neither an officer and director bar nor any improper professional conduct penalty.

David Drummond also got caught up in a 2005 SEC action involving Google’s failure to register employee option transactions under the Securities Act and to provide required information to option recipients. That proceeding focused on Drummond’s role, this time as General Counsel of Google, in determining whether Rule 701 or another Securities Act exemption applied to the company’s employee stock options transactions prior to its IPO. The company filed a rescission offer for those options transactions after it determined that the claimed exemptions were not available. In settlement of that Enforcement proceeding, Drummond agreed to a cease and desist order for Securities Act registration violations.

With those serving in the roles of General Counsel and Chief Financial Officer seemingly in the SEC cross-hairs with the recent spate of options backdating cases, these two cases demonstrate that settling an SEC action is not always the end of the world. You really need to examine the circumstances of each case, and the penalties imposed, in judging the overall impact of the case on the individuals involved.

Disclosing the SEC’s Enforcement Interest in an Executive Officer

The then-pending SEC investigation of David Drummond’s role at SmartForce surfaced shortly before Google’s high profile IPO back in 2004. The company’s prospectus included somewhat ugly disclosure about the Staff’s intention to recommend that the SEC bring a case against Drummond, and noted that the Staff had offered him the chance to make a Wells submission and that he intended to make such a submission.

This situation highlights the often difficult question: “When is the right time to disclose an SEC investigation against the company and/or one of its executive officers?” While Item 103 of Regulation S-K provides that governmental proceedings “known to be contemplated by governmental authorities” against the company need to be disclosed, Item 401(f) of Regulation S-K – which covers legal proceedings involving officers and directors – includes no such language about “contemplated” proceedings. Practices continue to vary as to when companies will choose to disclose pending SEC investigations involving a company, its officers and directors, although certainly a “Wells” call from SEC Staff is more likely today than ever to result in public disclosure about the investigation. In the absence of a bright-line test for determining when to disclose a pending investigation, some have criticized how long it takes for ongoing investigations to come to light. In fact, last summer an individual sent a rulemaking petition to the SEC asking that it adopt a rule requiring a Form 8-K filing shortly after the company receives a Wells notice. I suspect that, given all of the other things on Corp Fin’s plate and the general sense of “8-K fatigue,” this petition won’t be acted on anytime soon.

As demonstrated by the situation with David Drummond, disclosing the SEC’s interest in an executive at the Wells stage can result in disclosure that the company may have to live with for some time. Three years have gone by since the initial disclosure in Google’s IPO prospectus about the investigation, and Google has included the same disclosure in each 10-K for the last three years about the existence of the Wells request and Drummond’s Wells submission – with no update as to the status of the investigation. Had the case not been settled, this disclosure could have certainly gone on indefinitely.

For more information about disclosure of SEC investigations, check out our “FAQs re: Disclosure of Enforcement Proceedings” and our “Sample Disclosures of SEC Actions” in our “SEC Enforcement” Practice Area.

Posted: July-August issue of Deal Lawyers print newsletter

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– “I’ll Swap Two Derek Jeters and a Pack of Cherry Bazooka for Five Barry Bonds”
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– Drafting Forum Selection Provisions
– The “Sample Language” Corner: Joint Governance Provisions in Merger of Equals Transactions

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– Dave Lynn