Financial adviser Chauncey Mayfield allegedly stole $3.1 million from the pension funds of Detroit police officers and firefighters so he could buy shopping centers in California, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Did he do it? Who knows? Mr. Mayfield and several of his associates settled the case last week without admitting or denying guilt. All they had to do to make the SEC go away was agree to give the money back.
The SEC recently alleged that Revlon Inc. (REV) misled its shareholders by withholding information about its market valuation as it went private and cashed them out of their stock, in 2009.
Did the makeup maker defraud its shareholders? Was it a coverup? Who can say? Last week, Revlon settled the charges without admitting or denying guilt, agreeing to pay an $850,000 penalty.
In January, the SEC accused Egan-Jones Ratings Co. and its president, Sean Egan, of lying in the company's registration to become a Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization. Egan-Jones wants investors to trust it to rate complex asset-backed securities and government debt issuers, but the SEC alleged the company couldn't even tell the truth about itself.
Did Egan-Jones mislead the SEC? We can't be sure. The company and its president settled the charges without admitting or denying guilt, agreeing to a minor regulatory sanction.
Ratings companies were a leading cause of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet five years later, they still can cop a guilt-free plea. This is why we have never really gotten the whole truth about anything, and why another financial crisis surely will happen again.
On Tuesday, though, the SEC's new chairman, Mary Jo White, told The Wall Street Journal the agency will seek admissions of guilt in some cases.
The regulator will keep the traditional "no admit, no deny" option for many cases because it is expedient and appropriate in most of the civil matters the SEC prosecutes. This approach allows companies to correct mistakes without generating evidence for shareholder lawsuits. But it can look ridiculous in cases where massive fraud is alleged and legions of investors have been harmed.
"Public accountability in particular kinds of cases can be quite important," Ms. White said. "And if you don't get them, you litigate them."
Tough talk. But hasn't the SEC already dispensed with most cases related to the 2008 financial crisis? Many of Wall Street's giants--including Bank of America Corp. (BAC), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM)--have settled civil fraud charges without admitting or denying guilt. And this rush to closure has made a mockery of justice.
Anyone who settles without admitting guilt can later claim it did so only to avoid the legal bills. And in this light, some may view the SEC as a government extortionist, shaking down companies with accusations that never can be tested in court.
This is why a federal judge rejected one of the SEC's proposed deals with a big bank in 2011, a $285 million settlement offer by Citigroup Inc. (C). The SEC alleged the bank jilted its investors in a 2007 mortgage-bond deal. The investors lost $700 million. The bank made $160 million betting against them. And the SEC was ready to let Citigroup walk away without admitting or denying guilt. The matter remains before a federal appeals court.
"Doesn't the SEC have an interest in what the truth is?" Judge Jed Rakoff said, raising the question of whether SEC settlements were just "a cost of doing business."
You could argue there are costs associated with the business of running the mob, too. Imagine if alleged mobster James "Whitey" Bulger could settle without admitting or denying guilt. He is now on trial in Boston, at age 83, for 19 murders that happened years ago. Agents seized more than $800,000 in cash when they arrested him. Clearly, he is a successful businessman. What if he just put up that loot for a fine, er, cost of doing business?
Maybe it is because we believe Murder Inc. is not the same thing as white-collar crime. But slapping thieves and swindlers with civil judgments--where no admission of guilt is required--is equally absurd. The SEC can refer its cases to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal prosecutions. But too often, the cases end in a quick and dirty settlement.
Imagine stealing money from the cops and then cutting a deal where you just give the money back.
"Mayfield stole pension money from Detroit's retired police officers, firefighters, and surviving spouses and children to buy strip malls," said the SEC's Andrew Ceresney, co-director of enforcement, in a press release. "To make matters worse, other senior officers at the firm joined together with him to cover up his deceitful and grave betrayal of trust."
Nevertheless the SEC was content to leave Mr. Mayfield to his other legal problems. He pleaded guilty in February to paying bribes to Detroit's former treasurer in exchange for business.
For this, he faces up to five years in prison. But neither he nor his associates face criminal charges for what the SEC alleged. In its press release, the SEC said the loot they took "could have provided a year of benefits for more than 100 retired police officers, firefighters and surviving spouses and children."
Then, further down comes the fine print: "They neither admit nor deny the allegations in the settlement."
Given the SEC's long history of wrist-slapping enforcements, why should they?
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)