The SEC Whistleblower Program

By Julie S. Mendel, SILA-A, CDEi
Aug 11, 2020
The SEC whistleblower program

The SEC Whistleblower Program was created by Congress in 2011 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, to provide monetary incentives to individuals who report potential federal securities law violations to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The Whistleblower Program came on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis where investors lost billions in part due to unchecked practices at large firms and corporations.

Eligible whistleblowers are typically awarded between 10% and 30% of any monetary sanctions imposed over $1 million that resulted from the information provided by the whistleblower. Because the minimum monetary award will not be less than $100,000, several substantial awards given to SEC whistleblowers over the past nine years. In fact, since 2011, the SEC has awarded more than $500 million to whistleblowers, and whistleblower tips have enabled the SEC to recover over $2 billion in financial penalties.

What Is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is someone who reports illegal activity (or “blows the whistle”) to authorities, usually about an organization. Whistleblowers are typically individuals who works inside of the organization where the violations are taking place. Although not required, the whistleblower is often someone within the organization that is in a position to directly know and disclose information about illegal activity or wrongdoing that the authorities would otherwise not know. Having said that, whistleblowers do not need to be an employee or an insider within the company , and can submit the information as an outsider who obtained through a business relationship, social interaction, or other means.

An SEC whistleblower is specifically someone who tips the SEC off to violations of federal securities laws, such as money laundering, stock manipulation, insider trading, embezzlement, and other illegal and fraudulent activity. There are no citizenship or residency requirements to be an SEC whistleblower.

Information from an SEC whistleblower should be from the whistleblowers’ independent knowledge and not come from publicly available information, although independent analyses of publicly available information is permitted. It is not required that the whistleblower be an eyewitness to or have damning evidence of a securities law violation, although it could increase the likelihood of a monetary award.

Who Is Eligible to Be a Whistleblower?

Simply put, any person who voluntarily provides original information to the SEC about potential securities fraud is an eligible whistleblower. There are no time limitations on the illegal activity. In fact, the securities fraud could have already occurred, could be presently occurring, or will soon occur. As stated earlier, to receive a monetary award, the whistleblower must provide information that leads to SEC sanctions of more than $1 million.

Whistleblowers can be single individuals or multiple individuals, but organizations or companies do not qualify as whistleblowers.

Why Are Whistleblowers Important?

The SEC Whistleblower Program serves an important role. Blowing the whistle and alerting the SEC to instances of securities law violations is important for a number of reasons including:

  • It protects investors.
  • It protects taxpayers.
  • It is the right thing to do.
  • It will hold wrongdoers accountable.

Firms or companies engaging in money laundering, embezzlement, insider trading, stock manipulation, or other forms of securities fraud are organizations that do not typically last very long.

In 2018, the Chairman of the SEC summed up the whistleblower program as follows: “The Commission’s whistleblower program has contributed significantly to our ability to detect wrongdoing and better protect investors and the marketplace, particularly where fraud is well-hidden or difficult to detect. As we continue our pursuit of enforcement initiatives focused on misconduct that impacts the retail investor, the strength of our whistleblower program is a critical component in our investor protection toolbox.”

Examples of Whistleblowers Awards

As stated earlier, since its first award was given in 2012, the SEC has awarded a staggering $500 million to whistleblowers — roughly 25% of the $2 billion it’s retrieved in sanctions.

In June 2020, the SEC announced their largest ever payout to a single individual: nearly $50 million. “This award marks several milestones for the whistleblower program,” Jane Norberg, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, said in the press release announcing the $50 million award. “Whistleblowers have proven to be a critical tool in the enforcement arsenal to combat fraud and protect investors.”

Prior to this $50 million award in 2020, the largest amount awarded to a single individual was a $39 million payout in 2018.

Other recent awards given as part of the SEC Whistleblower Program include:

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