Sunday Read: Commissioner Lee’s Legacy
This overview of former SEC Commissioner Allison Lee’s commitment to whistleblower protections was sent as part of NWC’s “Sunday Read” series that aims to educate supporters about legislative or policy initiatives and current events. For more information like this, please join our mailing list.
On July 15, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) said goodbye to Commissioner Allison Herren Lee. Commissioner Lee announced that she will not seek a second term with the Commission in March, and since then NWC has sadly awaited her official departure.
Serving as a Commissioner since July 2019 and working for the Commission since 2005, Commissioner Lee has displayed a strong commitment to the whistleblower community. Commissioner Lee’s colleagues at the SEC commended her “years of public service have been marked by her humility, thoughtfulness, and dedication to investors and our markets.”
In this week’s Sunday Read, you will know more about Commissioner Lee’s dedication and unwavering support of whistleblowers.
Commissioner Lee’s Support of Whistleblowers
From January to April 2021, Commissioner Lee served as the acting chair of the SEC. During this period Lee continued to reinforce ESG activism, focusing on climate and sustainability. It was during this period that the SEC sought out initial comments on the climate disclosure proposals, reminding the public that this has been one of the commissioner’s primary focuses.
Commissioner Lee has often spoken out about the importance of transparency in disclosures. When speaking on climate and ESG disclosures, Lee emphasized that “…it’s time to move from the question of ‘if’ to the more difficult question of ‘how’ we obtain disclosures on climate”. Acting Chair Lee strongly advocated for increased disclosures, across multiple industries, with the understanding that this would allow whistleblowers to speak out with greater confidence and clarity.
“All too often, sometimes very publicly and sometimes in the shadows, those whistleblowers face retaliation from the powerful figures they expose”, she said, noting that whistleblowers deserve better. Making it very clear to the public that whistleblowers often face consequences for serving the public, Commissioner Lee worked tirelessly to celebrate the efforts of whistleblowers and should be recognized as an invaluable member of the community.
Bravery in Dissent
In September 2020, Commissioner Lee spoke out in dissent against a rule change that had been proposed that would negatively affect whistleblowers. While the rules were branded as adding clarity and transparency, Lee explained to the public in a statement that the commission would be able to change the amount of an award as they see fit.
The SEC’s whistleblower program states that whistleblowers are entitled to 10 to 30 percent of the money collected when sanctions exceed $1 million. The 2020 rule changes simply restated the Commission’s authority in deciding the dollar amount and percentages of awards, based on the significance of the information provided.
Commissioner Lee voiced that this rule was extremely problematic for whistleblowers, saying;
“I cannot support a rule that allows two different outcomes where the only difference is the size of the amount collected. By definition, that means that the dollar amount or size of the award is factored into our consideration”.
Commissioner Lee understood the importance of providing meaningful incentives to whistleblowers and continued to fight for the strengthening of the SEC whistleblower program until leaving in 2022.
Standing up for Whistleblowers
While again clarifying the importance of rewards, noting that this practice “encourages whistleblowers to choose to bring information to us”, Commissioner Lee opposed the introduction of subjectivity into the awards process for related actions cases. Citing that it could become increasingly difficult to keep up with confidentiality requirements across agencies, as well as the varying caps on reward amounts in some agencies, Commissioner Lee made it clear that these rules were not in the best interest of whistleblowers. Being critical of the SEC’s policy decisions is immensely commendable and should be recognized as intentional support of whistleblowers.
Commissioner Lee displayed extreme bravery for dissenting against these rule changes and was ultimately vindicated earlier this year when current Chair Gary Gensler led the SEC in proposing changes that move to counteract these rules on related action cases. NWC commends Commissioner Lee for standing up for whistleblowers, and for reminding the public that whistleblowers are important in stopping fraud and illegal activity.
Whistleblowers Need a New Cheerleader
NWC will dearly miss Commissioner Lee’s contributions and recognition of whistleblowers. With such a powerful voice in support of whistleblowers soon retiring, the public needs another face that will champion whistleblowers. Someone needs to remind the public of the dedication and courage needed to come forward so that whistleblowers feel supported when they most need it.
NWC applauds Commissioner Lee’s contributions to whistleblower rights, and will miss her leadership at the Securities and Exchange Commission. We hope that new Commissioners Uyeda and Lizárraga will follow in Commissioner Lee’s footsteps and advocate for whistleblowers and the successful SEC Whistleblower Program throughout their tenure at the Commission.
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