Plaintiffs’ lawyers have seized upon this issue as yet another opportunity to bring cases against corporations and their officers and directors.
Such cases are brought under the guise of both class actions and shareholder derivative proceedings.
Subsequently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) took an interest, followed by the securities plaintiffs’ bar and many corporations. The practice of options backdating, apparently widespread from 1996 through 2002, is widely believed to have been short-circuited by the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002.
Although backdating had not yet been recognized as a problem, the provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley requiring that insiders report the acquisition of securities, including options, within two days of receipt greatly hindered the ability of corporations to backdate options.
Similarly, the FBI has reported that it has 52 companies under criminal investigation. Department of Justice has said it will bring criminal charges where defendants falsify corporate books and records; issue false financial statements; lie to boards of directors, auditors or the SEC; or file false reports.As in other enforcement areas, the SEC has a penchant for pursuing through civil actions matters that involve blatant and intentional misconduct.Of course, the imposition of an officer and director bar against those who are intimately involved with the backdating process can result in a corporation losing its founder or other key management personnel.With its attendant investigation, legal actions and executive fallout, the practice of options backdating is expected to have a short shelf life.
But while options backdating may have a truncated life expectancy, its current impact is robust.
The backdating problem was first highlighted by Professor Erik Lie of the University of Iowa, who published his initial study in 2004.