The SEC Office of Inspector General’s September 2017 Report
Posted by Laura Anthony, Esq. on May 07, 2018
The SEC Office of Inspector General’s September 2017 Report- in September 2017, the SEC Office of Inspector General published an Evaluation of the Division of Corporation Finance’s Disclosure Review and Comment Letter Process (the “September 2017 Report”). The purpose of the Inspector General’s examination and report was to review CorpFin’s process for issuing, tracking and facilitating public access to comment letters and related correspondence.
The September 2017 Report reveals that CorpFin is developing a new system to improve and streamline certain aspects of the disclosure review process. The new system is called the System for Workflow Activity Tracking, which is referred to as SWAT. SWAT will automate certain aspects of the review process such as providing notifications of filing review status to other review team members. In addition, SWAT will generate a draft comment letter based on comments inputted into and approved within the system. The reviewer or another designated member of the relevant assistant director’s staff will review and revise the draft letter to ensure that it meets CorpFin’s policies for format, tone, and content. Once the draft letter is approved, a final comment letter will be generated within SWAT.
In its examination, the Office of Inspector General found that: (i) examiners and reviewers did not always properly document comments before issuing comment letters to companies; (ii) some case files were incomplete as of the date CorpFin issued a comment letter to a company; and (iii) examiners and reviewers inconsistently documented oral comments to companies.
As a result, the Office of Inspector General made three recommendations for CorpFin to improve its internal process. In particular, CorpFin should: (i) establish a mechanism or control for staff members to trace all comments provided to companies for inclusion in examiner and reviewer reports before issuing comment letters; (ii) establish a mechanism or control that ensures the staff follows policies to upload all examiner and reviewer reports to the internal workstation before issuing comment letters; and (iii) establish detailed guidance on how examiners and reviewers should document oral comments provided to companies during disclosure reviews. The recommendations were agreed to and will be closed upon verification that the corrective measures have been implemented. It is anticipated that the full implementation of the SWAT process will effectively resolve these issues as well.
A company can stay prepared for comment letters, and responses, by making sure it has adequate internal controls and procedures for reporting. The company should also stay on top of SEC guidance on disclosure matters, which can be accomplished by ensuring that the company has experienced SEC counsel that, in turn, stays up to date on all SEC rules, regulations and guidance. Likewise, the company should retain an accountant that monitors up-to-date accounting pronouncements and guidance. The company should maintain a file with backup materials for any disclosures made, including copies of reference materials for third-party disclosure items. In responding to comments, it is helpful to review other companies’ comment response letters and disclosures on particular issues. Where the SEC has requested changes in future filings, the company and its counsel must be sure to continuously monitor to be sure those changes are included. As mentioned, the SEC reviews public information on the company, including websites and press releases and accordingly, these materials should be reviewed for consistency in SEC reports.
Finally, a company may seek confidential treatment of materials and responses to comments under Rule 83. Rule 83 requires the company to respond to comments with two separate letters: one containing the confidential information, and the other not. Unlike confidential treatment requests under Rules 406 and 24b-2, a confidential treatment request for a comment response letter does not require that the company provide a justification for such confidential treatment. However, if a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is submitted by a third party related to such comment letter response, the SEC will inform the company and request justification for continued confidential treatment. Confidential treatment under Rule 83 expires after 10 years unless a renewal is requested. Both Rule 83 and other confidential treatment rules require very specific transmittal procedures, and the documents must all clearly indicate that confidential treatment is requested.