Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the interview that appears in print in the September issue of CFO magazine.
After securing guilty verdicts against Enron’s top officials, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told reporters: “It encourages us to continue to combat corruption wherever we find it.” So far, the Corporate Fraud Task Force, which the 48-year-old McNulty heads, has found it in plenty of places. The Task Force has won convictions against more than 200 executives, including 30 CFOs, in the past four years. In July, it opened a new frontier when the first federal charges for backdating stock options were levied against Brocade Communications Systems. McNulty has also voiced his intention to take on hedge funds and anything else that threatens the integrity of financial markets. “We are more than ever before in a situation where government has a duty to police the marketplace,” he insists.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly investigating some 60 companies for illegally backdating option grants. Are we seeing just the tip of the iceberg?
It’s clearly an area that is getting increased attention from federal regulators, investigators, and prosecutors. But we have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis and not charge until we have sufficient evidence. So this is an area of growing concern, but I don’t want to be specific about what kind of volume we’ll see.
The sums involved in backdating pale in comparison to the billions of dollars involved in the high-profile accounting-fraud cases. Can you really compare these cases?
You’re right. The numbers in the accounting-fraud scandals were enormous…. [But] regardless of the magnitude [in backdating cases], we’re seeing fraudulent conduct that undermines the [delivery of] truthful information. In time we’ll understand more about the scope of the conduct. But at this point, it’s the nature of the conduct itself that is really the principal focus.
Does it matter that many of the executives in these scandals didn’t profit from them?
That will affect how cases are charged and the direction the prosecution will take…. But the Corporate Fraud Task Force needs to be concerned about anything that undermines the integrity of the marketplace…. [There is still an issue] of who profits and who doesn’t. And in [backdating] cases, we see the potential for — and the reality of — significant harm.
Backdating cases aside, there has been a drop in the number of new charges and investigations opened this past year. Why?
First, there is a cyclical nature to these prosecutions. Sometimes there will be more cases because investigations get to the point where charges can be brought. Second, we have a limited number of resources. U.S. Attorneys Offices can become involved in large prosecutions that occupy the attention of corporate-fraud prosecutors and don’t allow for the opening of new cases. Finally, we’ve seen the message getting through regarding [better] corporate behavior. And [given that], it ought to be the goal of the law enforcement regulatory communities that our case numbers go down if we’re working just as hard. That would tell us that the instances of misconduct are going down as well.