A federal judge is saying “no” to the $33 million settlement between Bank of America (BofA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), refusing to sign off on the agreement and demanding answers as to why the regulator accepted what he calls a “small penalty.” Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York made his remarks at an Aug. 10 hearing, where he also asked Bank of America for the names of the executives allegedly involved in lying to investors about plans to pay billions of dollars in bonuses at Merrill Lynch, which BofA acquired during the height of the financial crisis.
“If Bank of America misled the shareholders, as you assert about a multibillion dollar matter, isn’t there something strangely askew in a fine of $33 million?” Rakoff asked the SEC’s lawyers during the Aug. 10 hearing. “It is very difficult for me to see how the proposed settlement is remotely reasonable.”
Without Judge Rakoff’s consent, the BofA/SEC settlement cannot move forward. As it stands, the judge has asked for further filings and information by Aug. 24, and says a settlement wouldn’t be approved before Sept. 9.
On Aug. 3, Bank of America, without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, agreed to pay $33 million to settle charges that it misled investors about Merrill Lynch’s plans to pay executive bonuses as it prepared to report fourth-quarter losses totaling more than $15 billion. In turn, those losses affected the fiscal health of Bank of America, which acquired Merrill Lynch in January 2009.
The SEC alleges that Bank of America promised shareholders that Merrill Lynch would not pay year-end bonuses and incentives without first getting BofA’s consent. In reality, however, the SEC says the bank already had given that approval, authorizing Merrill Lynch to pay nearly $6 billion in extra compensation.
As reported Aug. 10 by the Washington Post, Judge Rakoff had harsh words for BofA lawyers during the hearing, demanding to know the names of the individual or individuals who decided what to reveal to shareholders in a November proxy statement. According to the article, the judge specifically asked whether Bank of America chief executive Kenneth D. Lewis and former Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain were involved.
“Was it some sort of ghost?” Rakoff asked. “Who were the people? . . . If you are correct that this proxy statement was materially misleading, then at a minimum Mr. Thain and Mr. Lewis would seem to be responsible for that, yes?”