Cornell Law Review Volume 102 Issue 4

Coordinating Compliance Incentives

In today’s regulatory environment, a corporation engaged in wrongdoing can be sure of one thing: regulators will point to an ineffective compliance program as a key cause of institutional misconduct. The explosion in the importance of compliance is unsurprising given the emphasis that governmental actors—from the Department of Justice, to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to even the Commerce Department—place on the need for institutions to adopt “effective compliance programs.” The governmental actors that demand effective compliance programs, however, have narrow scopes of authority. DOJ Fraud handles violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, while the SEC adjudicates claims of misconduct under the securities laws, and the Federal Trade Commission deals with concerns regarding anticompetitive behavior. This segmentation of enforcement authority has created an information and coordination problem amongst regulators, resulting in an enforcement regime where institutional misconduct is adjudicated in a piecemeal fashion. Enforcement actions focus on compliance with a particular set of laws instead of on whether the corporate wrongdoing is a result of a systematic compliance failure that requires a comprehensive, firm-wide, compliance overhaul. As a result, the government’s goal of incentivizing companies to implement “effective ethics and compliance programs” appears at odds with its current enforcement approach.

Yet governmental actors currently have the tools necessary to provide strong inducements for corporations to, when needed, engage in restructuring of their compliance programs. This Article argues that efforts to improve corporate compliance would benefit from regulatory mechanisms that (i) recognize when an institution is engaged in recidivist behavior across diverse regulatory areas and (ii) aggressively sanction institutions that are repeat offenders. If governmental actors adopt a new enforcement strategy aimed at “Coordinating Compliance Incentives,” they can more easily detect when an institution is suffering from a systemic compliance failure, which may deter firms from engaging in recidivist behavior. If corporations are held responsible for being repeat offenders across diverse regulatory areas, it may encourage them to implement more robust reforms to their compliance programs and, ultimately, lead to improved ethical conduct and more effective compliance programs within public companies.

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