BY Richard Summerfield
On 1 April, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced its first ‘enforcement action’ regarding the use of what it deemed to be restrictive language in a confidentiality agreement.
The decision handed down by the SEC found that technology and engineering firm KBR Inc had violated whistleblower protection rule 21F-17, enacted under the Dodd-Frank Act. “By requiring its employees and former employees to sign confidentiality agreements imposing prenotification requirements before contacting the SEC, KBR potentially discouraged employees from reporting securities violations to us,” said Andrew Ceresney, the SEC’s enforcement director, in a statement announcing the enforcement action.
The confidentiality agreements KBR’s employees were required to sign were discovered as a result of a lawsuit brought against the firm. In the suit, Harry Barko, a former employee of the company, accused KBR and Halliburton of inflating the cost of a military supply contract for US bases in Iraq.
As a result of the enforcement action against it, KBR agreed to pay a fine of around $130,000 to settle the SEC’S investigation and has also agreed to amend its confidentiality agreements, a step which has been welcomed by the SEC. However KBR did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. Furthermore, the company was not found to have specifically prevented an employee from reporting fraud. Indeed the firm’s use of confidentiality agreements pre-dated the enactment of the SEC’s whistleblower protection rules.
In a statement, KBR’s chief executive officer, Stuart Bradie, noted that the “SEC’s order acknowledges that it is not aware of KBR having ever prevented anyone from reporting to the SEC, nor has the company taken any action to enforce the agreement, and that is because we have never done so.” Mr Bradie added, “We are pleased to have amicably resolved this matter and look forward to putting it behind us.”
Yet with this action, and with a number of other enforcement actions imminent, the SEC has once again reiterated that it is willing to diligently implement the whistleblower protections it has at its disposal.