Prosecutions against executives accused of fraud in connection with backdating stock options have been plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. In August, the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction of Gregory Reyes, former CEO of Brocade Communication Systems, due to prosecutorial misconduct. Last week, Judge Carney of the Central District of California dismissed charges against former Broadcom executives with prejudice, entering a judgment of acquittal for one.
Stock-option backdating is a practice in which an employer grants stock options to an employee, retroactively dated to increase its value. Backdating itself is not illegal, but it must be properly disclosed in financial records and filings with the SEC. This article, published at the beginning of the backdating scandal in 2006, explains the history and controversy of backdating options. The SEC began charging corporations and executives in enforcement actions relating to backdating in significant numbers in 2006, and criminal charges have resulted in a few cases. The SEC has continued to bring enforcement actions against corporations and executives for secret backdating of options.
US v. Reyes was the first, and most high-profile, of the criminal cases. Reyes’ defense was that, although he had signed off on backdated options, he had relied on Brocade’s finance department to properly account for the backdated options in the corporate books and was not responsible for false records. The government put up a witness from the finance department who testified that she and other employees in the department did not know about the backdating. However, higher-up finance department employees had told the FBI that they did know about the backdating, but those witnesses did not testify because they were subject to possible criminal prosecution and had been targets of SEC civil suits. In the prosecutor’s closing argument, he told the jury that “finance did not know anything” in direct contravention of the statements given to the FBI. The Ninth Circuit stressed the special duty of federal prosecutors not to impede the truth and remanded the case for a new trial, which is scheduled for February.