In the first case of its kind, the Securities and Exchange Commission has sanctioned a company for creating internal policies that prevent employees from going to regulators with legal concerns. Houston technology firm KBR Inc. will pay $130,000 to settle charges that it violated federal whistleblower protections enshrined in the Dodd-Frank Act.
According to the SEC, the company forced employees involved in internal legal investigations to sign confidentiality agreements that precluded them from speaking with outside parties. The policy, the SEC said, essentially forbade employees from blowing the whistle to federal authorities.
Though small in monetary terms, the settlement establishes an important benchmark in how regulators approach whistleblower protections. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, included a number of whistleblower provisions, including measures that prohibit corporate policies that discourage employees from raising alarms. So far, however, no companies had been penalized under the rule.
“By requiring its employees and former employees to sign confidentiality agreements imposing pre-notification requirements before contacting the SEC, KBR potentially discouraged employees from reporting securities violations to us,” said SEC enforcement director Andrew Ceresney in a statement.
The enforcement action comes after increasing complaints from whistleblower advocates and attorneys, who argued that the Dodd-Frank provisions against corporate informant “gag orders” had gone largely undefined and unenforced.
According to the SEC, there was no evidence that KBR had squashed attempts on the part of whistleblowers to contact the SEC. According to Sean McKessey, chief of the SEC’s whistleblower office, KBR has since changed its confidentiality policies to comport with the law.