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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

SEC Chairwoman Under Fire Over Ethics Issues

The Securities and Exchange Commission took a beating two years ago for failing to detect Bernard L. Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme during the decades that he ran it.

Now, its chairwoman is coming under Congressional fire for hiring as the S.E.C.’s general counsel someone with a Madoff financial interest — David M. Becker, who participated in matters involving how the scheme’s victims would be compensated.



The revelations about Mr. Becker’s role have raised fresh questions about ethical standards and practices at the agency, where Mary L. Schapiro was brought in as chairwoman two years ago with a mandate to strengthen its enforcement unit. Ms. Schapiro will appear before Congress on Thursday to discuss the matter. Questions about Mr. Becker arose last month after Irving H. Picard, the trustee overseeing the Madoff case, sued him and two of his brothers to recover $1.5 million of the $2 million they had inherited in 2004 from a Madoff investment by their late mother. Mr. Becker’s financial ties to Madoff had not been publicly disclosed until that suit.

Mr. Becker said that he advised Ms. Schapiro and the chief ethics officer of his financial interest in a Madoff investment account, “either shortly before or after” joining the agency in February 2009.

Last Friday, H. David Kotz, the agency’s inspector general, announced that he would investigate the potential conflicts in Mr. Becker’s role as a Madoff recipient who was also the S.E.C.’s general counsel and senior policy director involved in decisions relating to the Ponzi scheme. Ms. Schapiro requested the review, a commission spokesman said.

Lawmakers have also asked Ms. Schapiro for details of her discussions with Mr. Becker about his Madoff account when she hired him in 2009. Ms. Schapiro missed a deadline on Monday for those responses. An S.E.C. spokesman said Ms. Schapiro declined to comment on Tuesday.

“One of the things the S.E.C. does is hold companies to a very high standard with regards to transparency and disclosure,” said Representative Randy Neugebauer, Republican of Texas, who is one of four Republican lawmakers asking Ms. Schapiro about her dealings with Mr. Becker and his disclosures. “We think it’s important that the same integrity exists within the S.E.C., ensuring that people working there do not have conflicts of interest and that here is a process to vet those issues and make sure they are taken care of in a way that gives confidence.”

Perhaps the most significant Madoff matter involving Mr. Becker is a proposed reversal of the agency’s recommendation on how to compensate victims of the scheme, according to two people briefed on the S.E.C.’s discussions who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. While the agency had agreed on a deal that would return to investors only the money they had put into their Madoff accounts, Mr. Becker argued that the commission should change its stance to allow victims to keep some of the gains their investments had generated, since the investment would have grown somewhat over time even in a low-interest account. The Becker family would benefit from this approach.

Mr. Becker did not return a call for comment.

In correspondence with lawmakers late last month, Mr. Becker also said that he alerted the ethics office about his family’s Madoff investment again that May after he received a letter from a number of law firms representing Madoff victims asking that the commission change its proposed compensation formula. Among the issues are whether Madoff investors who withdrew money before the fraud was exposed must return some of their proceeds — and if so, how much — to other investors.

“I recognized that it was conceivable that this issue could affect my financial interests because the issue could affect the trustee’s decision to bring clawback actions against persons like me,” Mr. Becker wrote in response to lawmakers. The ethics officer approved his participation, he said. That officer reported directly to Mr. Becker and spent only 25 minutes reviewing the matter, according to Congressional staff members briefed on the discussions who requested anonymity because they also were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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