The Conflicted Board

Our last post about cyberfraud and business continuity elicited a comment about the vital role of corporate governance from an old colleague of mine now retired and living in Seattle.  But the wider question our commenter had was, ‘What are we as CFEs to make of a company whose Board willfully withholds for months information about a cyberfraud which negatively impacts it customers and the public? From the ethical point of view, does this render the Board somehow complicit in the public harm done?’

Governance of shareholder-controlled corporations refers to the oversight, monitoring, and controlling of a company’s activities and personnel to ensure support of the shareholders’ interests, in accordance with laws and the expectations of stakeholders. Governance has been more formally defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a set of relationships between a company’s management, its Board, its shareholders, and other stakeholders. Corporate governance also provides the structure through which the objectives of the company are set (including about ethical continuity), and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance. Good corporate governance should provide proper incentives for the Board and management to pursue objectives that are in the interests of the company and its shareholders and should facilitate effective monitoring.

The role and mandate of the Board of Directors is of paramount importance in the governance framework. Typically, the directors are elected by the shareholders at their annual meeting, which is held to receive the company’s audited annual financial statements and the audit report thereon, as well as the comments of the chairman of the Board, the senior company officers, and the company auditor.

A Board of Directors often divides itself into subcommittees that concentrate more deeply in specific areas than time would allow the whole Board to pursue. These subcommittees are charged with certain actions and/or reviews on behalf of the whole Board, with the proviso that the whole Board must be briefed on major matters and must vote on major decisions. Usually, at least three subcommittees are created to review matters related to (1) governance, (2) compensation, and (3) audit, and to present their recommendations to the full Board. The Governance Committee deals with codes of conduct and company policy, as well as the allocation of duties among the subcommittees of the Board. The Compensation Committee reviews the performance of senior officers, and makes recommendations on the nature and size of salaries, bonuses, and related remuneration plans. Most important to fraud examiners and assurance professionals, the Audit Committee reviews internal controls and systems that generate financial reports prepared by management; the appropriateness of those financial reports; the effectiveness of the company’s internal and external auditors; its whistle-blowing systems, and their findings; and recommends the re-election or not of the company’s external auditors.

The Board must approve the selection of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and many Boards are now approving the appointment of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) as well because of the important of that position. Generally, the CEO appoints other senior executives, and they, in turn, appoint the executives who report to them. Members of these committees are selected for their expertise, interest, and character, with the expectation that the independent judgment of each director will be exercised in the best interest of the company. For example, the ACFE tells us, members of the Audit Committee must be financially literate, and have sufficient expertise to understand audit and financial matters. They must be of independent mind (i.e., not be part of management or be relying upon management for a significant portion of their annual income), and must be prepared to exercise that independence by voting for the interest of all shareholders, not just those of management or of specific limited shareholder groups.

Several behavioral expectations extend to all directors, i.e., to act in the best interest of the company (shareholders & stakeholders), to demonstrate loyalty by exercising independent judgment, acting in good faith, obedient to the interests of all and to demonstrate due care, diligence, and skill.

All directors are expected to demonstrate certain fiduciary duties. Shareholders are relying on directors to serve shareholders’ interests, not the directors’ own interests, nor those of management or a third party. This means that directors must exercise their own independent judgment in the best interests of the shareholders. The directors must do so in good faith (with true purpose, not deceit) on all occasions. They must exercise appropriate skill, diligence, and an expected level of care in all their actions.

Obviously, there will be times when directors will be able to make significant sums of money by misusing the trust with which they have been bestowed and at the expense of the other stakeholders of the company. At these times a director’s interests may conflict with those of the others. Therefore, care must be taken to ensure that such conflicts are disclosed, and that they are managed so that no harm comes to the other shareholders. For example, if a director has an interest in some property or in a company that is being purchased, s/he should disclose this to the other directors and refrain from voting on the acquisition. These actions should alert other directors to the potential self-dealing of the conflicted director, and thereby avoid the non-conflicted directors from being misled into thinking that the conflicted director was acting only with the corporation’s interests in mind.

From time to time, directors may be sued’ by shareholders or third parties who believe that the directors have failed to live up to appropriate expectations. However, courts will not second-guess reasonable decisions by non-conflicted directors that have been taken prudently and on a reasonably informed basis. This is known as the business judgment ru1e and it protects directors charged with breach of their duty of care if they have acted honestly and reasonably. Even if no breach of legal rights has occurred, shareholders may charge that their interests have been ‘oppressed’ (i.e., prejudiced unfairly, or unfairly disregarded) by a corporation or a director’s actions, and courts may grant what is referred to as an oppression remedy of financial compensation or other sanctions against the corporation or the director personally. If, however, the director has not been self-dealing or misappropriating the company’s opportunities, s/he will likely be protected from personal liability by the business judgment rule.

Some shareholders or third parties have chosen to sue directors ‘personally in tort’ for their conduct as directors, even when they have acted in good faith and within the scope of their duties, and when they believed they were acting in the best interests of the corporations they serve.  Recently, courts have held that directors cannot escape such personal liability by simply claiming that they did the action when performing their corporate responsibilities. Consequently, directors or officers must take care when making all decisions that they meet normal standards of behavior.

Consequently, when management and the Board of a company who has been the victim of a cyber-attack decides to withhold information about the attack (sometimes for weeks or months), fundamental questions about compliance with fiduciary standards and ethical duty toward other stakeholders and the public can quickly emerge.   The impact of recent corporate cyber-attack scandals on the public has the potential to change future governance expectations dramatically. Recognition that some of these situations appear to have resulted from management inattention or neglect (the failure to timely patch known software vulnerabilities, for example) has focused attention on just how well a corporation can expect to remediate its public face and ensure ongoing business continuity following such revelations to the public.

My colleague points out that so damaging were the apparently self-protective actions taken by the Boards of some of these victim companies in the wake of several recent attacks to protect their share price, (thereby shielding the interests of existing executives, directors, and investors in the short term) that the credibility of their entire corporate governance and accountability processes has been jeopardized, thus endangering, in some cases, even their ability to continue as viable going concerns.

In summary, in the United States, the Board of Directors sits at the apex of a company’s governing structure. A typical Board’s duties include reviewing the company’s overall business strategy, selecting and compensating the company’s senior executives; evaluating the company’s outside auditor, overseeing the company’s financial statements; and monitoring overall company performance. According to the Business Roundtable, the Board’s ‘paramount duty’ is to safeguard the interests of the company’s shareholders.  It’s fair to ask if a Board that chooses not to reveal to its stakeholders or to the general investor public a potentially devastating cyber-fraud for many months can be said to have meet either the letter or the spirit of its paramount duty.

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