A former Enron accountant who blew the whistle on fraud at the energy giant says she doesn't trust the Securities and Exchange Commission to handle tips from company insiders, even though the agency plans to offer a generous new bounty for information about fraud.
“I don’t think the SEC’s culture is one that will make this effective one iota,” said Sherron Watkins, a one-time vice president at Enron, referring to expanded protections for whistleblowers included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
If she was in the same situation today as 10 years ago, when Watkins approached government authorities about accounting fraud at Enron, she would probably instead take her information to an organization like WikiLeaks, Watkins said.
In August 2001, Watkins warned then-Enron chief executive Ken Lay that Enron “might implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” After she was ignored, she told her story to government investigators. But by then it was too late and Enron had begun collapsing under the weight of allegations of massive fraud at the Houston-based energy giant.
Watkins said that she did not believe that the SEC is capable of evaluating and acting on valid tips that involve complicated financial maneuverings. The fallout from ignoring whistleblower Harry Markopoulos, who repeatedly warned the SEC of Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, but was ignored, still haunts the agency, Watkins said.
“The perception is that you wouldn’t be listened to” by the SEC, she said during a panel discussion about whistleblowers held by the New York State Society of Public Accountants.
Under the Dodd-Frank law, company employees who provide information about suspected fraud to the SEC will get a bounty if the tip leads to a payout of more than $1 million. Whistleblowers are then entitled to 10 to 30 percent of the payout.
Since the Madoff scandal, the SEC has hired a new enforcement director, Robert Khuzami, and eliminated a layer of management. The agency has also adopted a new mechanism to evaluate the 60,000 or more tips it gets each year.
Former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins, also on the panel, said that despite reforms at the SEC, “the new folks haven’t risen to the challenge of problems presented by Madoff and others.”
Atkins also warned of unintended consequences of the new law. For example, he said, an employee who detects a fraud of less than $1 million might keep silent about it until the fraud grows to the size where he or she would qualify for a monetary award.
An SEC spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Marion Koenigs, a deputy director for enforcement at the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, was the third member of the panel. “Doing the right thing is not easy,” she said of the difficult decisions faced by would-be whistleblowers, in response to some of the concerns raised by her fellow panelists.