The Echoes of Madoff at the SEC

The Echoes of Madoff at the SEC

The Madoff scandal is one of the low points in the history of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Every Congressional hearing or SEC-basher inevitably uses the failure to catch Madoff as evidence of the ineffectiveness of the SEC.

In a continuing journey down the rabbit hole, the SEC's Inspector General David Kotz released his 123-page report (.pdf) on former SEC General Counsel David Becker and his involvement with Madoff. Kotz has made a referral to the Department of Justice under a criminal conflict of interest provision.

Mr. Becker's late mother had an account with Madoff. If Mr. Becker were to be involved in mopping up the Madoff matter, there would be potential conflict of interest.

David Becker seems to have done the correct thing. He sought an answer from the SEC Ethics Counsel as to whether he should work on Madoff matters.

"I did precisely what I was supposed to do. I identified a matter that required legal advice from the SEC's Ethics Office. I sought that advice, received it, and followed it." Testimony of David Becker September 22, 2011

He fully disclosed the fact that he had been a beneficiary of his mother's estate which had invested in Madoff funds. The Ethics Counsel told him he did not need to recuse himself. His boss, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro, knew of the investment.

Nonetheless, the SEC's Inspector General is referring its results to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation.

Personally, I don't think Mr. Becker actually did anything wrong. I believe he joined the SEC as a white hat, wanting to resume his role in public service.

The problem is that it looks like he did something wrong. That's the problem with conflicts of interest. Even if you do the right thing, it will look like you were improperly influenced or tainted.

Becker did seek guidance from the SEC's Ethics Counsel. Unfortunately, the Ethics Counsel is part of the Office of the General Counsel. As General Counsel, Becker was the advice-giver's boss. Another conflict.  I'm not saying that Becker actually unduly influenced the Ethics Counsel. It's just looks bad and layers another conflict of interest onto the existing conflict of interest.

The SEC knew that Madoff was toxic and high-profile. They should have been more vigilant and not allowed Becker to participate. I would guess that Becker was so good at his job and so enthusiastic to help that he and the SEC failed to see his weaknesses. It would be hard to make him sit on the sidelines while the Commission was trying to clean-up after one of its biggest failure. But that is what they should have done.

They let the conflict of interest stay in place. That should have known that it would subject them to a later review and attack on their decision to keep Becker involved. They should have known that it would have led to something like the Inspector General's report.

I don't think Becker should be subject to criminal charges and hopefully the Department of Justice will drop the matter after a brief investigation.


For additional commentary on developments in compliance and ethics, visit Compliance Building, a blog hosted by Doug Cornelius.

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