This afternoon at 4 p.m. EST, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will hold a hearing at which the SEC and Bank of America (BofA) will have to justify a proposed $33 million settlement to resolve an SEC civil suit stemming from BofA’s takeover of Merrill Lynch earlier this year.
The SEC’s complaint, initially filed on August 3rd, states that BofA made “materially false and misleading statements in the joint proxy statement that it filed with Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. (“Merrill”) in connection with Bank of America’s $50 billion acquisition of Merrill on January 1, 2009.” Specifically, the SEC alleges that BofA authorized Merrill to pay up to $5.8 billion in bonuses, despite telling investors in proxy documents that Merrill had agreed not to award year-end performance bonuses or incentive pay before the merger closed. Merrill would ultimately pay $3.6 billion in bonuses, according to the SEC. Two weeks after the merger was complete, losses at Merrill prompted BofA to accept $20 billion of TARP funds, on top of its earlier $25 billion.
In conjunction with the August 3rd complaint, the parties submitted a proposed Consent Judgment by which BofA, without admitting or denying the allegations, agreed to pay a penalty of $33 million. However, Judge Rakoff took issue with the proposed settlement in an August 6, 2009 Order, stating that “[d]espite the public importance of this case, the proposed Consent Judgment would leave uncertain the truth of very serious allegations made in the Complaint. Further, the proposed Consent Judgment in no way specifies the basis for the $33 million figure or whether any of this money is derived directly or indirectly from the $20 billion in public funds previously advanced to Bank of America as part of its ‘bail out’.”
Today’s hearing is expected to focus on whether the $33 million settlement is in the public’s interest. The underlying context is that shareholders and the public might get the short end of the deal twice in a row – first when they were “defrauded” by the BofA proxy statements, and then again if BofA uses TARP money to pay the fine for that fraud.
Ultimately, the settlement is expected to win Judge Rakoff’s approval if the SEC and BofA can convince him that the public’s interest is not being harmed. In 2003, Judge Rakoff blocked a $500 million SEC settlement with WorldCom Inc. over the accounting fraud that led to the phone company's bankruptcy. Judge Rakoff later approved a $750 million settlement of the case.