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April 13, 2013

Stop with the 'admit no evil' hush money

(Continued)

Forgive Marrero if he appears unsympathetic toward a firm willing to pay a $600 million settlement — he knows it’s chump change to SAC Capital CEO Steve Cohen. The New York Post reported in March that a few days after the settlement was announced, Cohen spent $155 million to purchase Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from a friend.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon took a harsher tone in December, when he refused to approve a deal between the SEC and IBM Corp., accused of bribing officials from South Korea and China to win $54 million in government contracts. In March 2011, the company agreed to pay $10 million to settle the charges while admitting no wrongdoing. But Leon refused to sign off unless the company turned over more information about its accounting practices.

“I’m not just going to roll over like the SEC has. You’re going to need data to satisfy me,” Leon said. He demanded to know “why, for one of the largest companies in the world, this is too burdensome,” even suggesting that IBM bring its accountants in to explain, under oath, why such records were unavailable — on the Friday before Christmas, no less.

“I guess you want that $10 million judgment on your list of achievements this year,” Leon growled at SEC attorney Kyle DeYoung. “Well, it’s not going to happen.”

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff started pushing back against such slap-on-the-wrist settlements in 2009 by rejecting a proposed $33 million settlement with Bank of America over its takeover of Merrill Lynch. Rakoff said it was a “sweetheart deal” where “the SEC gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing ... and the bank’s management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators.” The case was later settled for $150 million.

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