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It's Time To Reinstate Aiding and Abetting Liability Against Those Who Help Securities Fraud

Now is the time, if ever, for Congress to pass legislation that would reinstate aiding and abetting liability for accountants, lawyers, and others who help corporate executives commit securities fraud that harm investors. The public is outraged from watching all those who assisted in the market meltdown walk away with their huge bonuses.

Senator Arlin Specter, introduced Senate Bill 1551 on July 30, 2009, seeking to do just that. The Bill called th "Liability for Aiding and Abetting Securities Violations Act of 2009," is currently co-sponsored by Edward Kaufman [D-DE], John Reed [D-RI] and Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI]. The Bill seeks to amend the SEC Act of 1934 subject to liability in a private civil action any person that knowingly or recklessly provides substantial assistance to another person (aids and abets) in violation of that act. The Senator's goal is to restore the ability to sue third parties in securities fraud lawsuits as freely as you could before the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Stoneridge v. Scientific Atlanta (Supreme Court docket).

The main provision of the Bill states:

For purposes of any private civil action implied under this title, any person that knowingly or recklessly provides substantial assistance to another person in violation of this title, or of any rule or regulation issued under this title, shall be deemed to be in violation of this title to the same extent as the person to whom such assistance is provided.’.

Senator Spector"s floor speech follows: 

 Mr. President. I have sought recognition to urge support for the legislation I just introduced, the Liability for Aiding and Abetting Securities Violations Act of 2009. My legislation would overturn two errant decisions of the Supreme Court--Central Bank of Denver v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, 511 U.S. 164, 1994, and Stoneridge Investment Partners, LLC v. Scientific-Atlanta, Inc., 522 U.S. 148, 2008, by amending the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to authorize a private right of action for aiding-and-abetting liability.

 Act's main anti-fraud provision, §10(b), makes it "unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly," to commit acts of fraud "in connection with the purchase or sale of any security." Nearly fifty years ago the Court implied a private right of action under §10(b). The result was that investors could recover financial losses caused by violations of 10(b) and the companion regulation issued by the SEC commonly known as "Rule 10b-5."

Until Central Bank, every circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals had concluded that §10(b)'s private right of action allowed recovery not only against the person who directly undertook a fraudulent act--the so-called primary violator--but also anyone who aided and abetted him. A five-Justice majority in Central Bank, intent on narrowing §10(b)'s scope, held that its private right of action extended only to primary violators.

When Congress debated the legislation that became the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, PSLRA, then-SEC chairman Arthur Levitt and others urged Congress to overturn Central Bank. Congress declined to do so. The PSLRA authorized only the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, to bring aiding-and- abetting enforcement litigation.

It is time for us to revisit that judgment. The massive frauds involving Enron, Refco, Tyco, Worldcom, and countless other lesser-known companies during the last decade have taught us that a stock issuer's auditors, bankers, business affiliates, and lawyers--sometimes called "secondary actors"--all too often actively participate in and enable the issuer's fraud. Federal Judge Gerald Lynch recently observed in a decision calling on Congress to reexamine Central Bank that secondary actors are sometimes "deeply and indispensably implicated in wrongful conduct." In re Refco, Inc. Sec. Litig., 609 F. Supp. 2d. 304, 318 n.15, S.D.N.Y. 2009. Professor John Coffee of Columbia Law School, a renowned expert on the regulation of the securities markets, has even laid much of the blame for the major corporate frauds of this [sic].

The immunity from suit that Central Bank confers on secondary actors has removed much-needed incentives for them to avoid complicity in and even help prevent securities fraud, and all too often left the victims of fraud uncompensated for their losses. Enforcement actions by the SEC have proved to be no substitute for suits by private plaintiffs. The SEC's litigating resources are too limited for the SEC to bring suit except in a small number of cases, and even when the SEC does bring suit, it cannot recover damages for the victims of fraud.

Last year's decision in Stoneridge made matters still worse for defrauded investors. Central Bank had at least held open the possibility that secondary actors who themselves undertake fraudulent activities prescribed by §10(b) could be "held liable as ..... primary violator[s]." Stoneridge has largely foreclosed that possibility. A divided Court held that §10(b)'s private right of action did not "reach" two vendors of a cable company that entered into sham transactions with the company knowing that it would publicly report the transactions in order to inflate its stock price. The Court conceded that the suppliers engaged in fraudulent conduct prescribed by §10(b), but held that they were not liable in a private action because only the issuer, not they, communicated the transaction to the public. That remarkable conclusion put the Court at odds with even the Republican Chairman of the SEC.

My legislative response would take the limited, but important, step amending of the Exchange Act to authorize a private right of action under §10(b) (and other, less commonly invoked, provisions of the Act) against a secondary actor who provides "substantial assistance" to a person who violates §10(b). Any suit brought under my proposed amendment would, of course, be subject to the heightened pleading standards, discovery-stay procedures, and other defendant-protective features of the PSLRA.

On Thursday, September 17, the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs held a hearing entitled to consider the Bill, entitled  "Evaluating S. 1551: The Liability for Aiding and Abetting Securities Violations Act of 2009." S. 1551.  Sen. Arlen Specter's chaired the hearing. The witnesses were John C. Coffee, Columbia University School of Law; Patrick J Szymanski, General Counsel, Change to Win (a group of labor unions); Tanya Solov, Director, Illinois Securities Department, of behalf of the North American Securities Administrators Association; Robert J. Giuffra, Jr., a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, NYC; and Adam C. Pritchard, University of Michigan Law School. Coffee, Szymanski and Solov testified in favor of the Bill. Their can be found here:

Messrs. Giuffa and Pritchard both testified against the Bill, asking for lesser enforcement of the securities laws, and arguing that private law suits cost millions to those who are sued (forgetting about the billions lost in the recent market crash), and pointing to the evil plaintiffs lawyers who actually make money enforcing these laws ( and conveniently ignoring the millions made by the attorenys now shielded from liability when they help their clients commit fraud. Rather, they prefer that the inept SEC retain sole jurisdiction to go after aiders and abettors. Professor Pritchard wants to do away with actual damages and substitute only the amounts gained by the wrongdoers...effectively making damages so small that no attorney could afford to bring a case. Thier testimony can be found here:

Robert Giuffra

Adam Pritchard

Senator Patrick Leahy's statement in favor of the Bill can be found here:


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