More company executives may face criminal charges as a result of ongoing federal investigations into stock-option backdating, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox said Friday.
“We have a substantial number of investigations under way (including) cases that are maturing to the point of potential criminal action,” Cox told reporters at a securities conference.
The goal of the probe is to all but eliminate the practice of improper stock-options backdating, Cox said. “Every company is on notice that it won’t be tolerated,” he said.
The government is investigating scores of public companies to determine whether stock option awards were backdated improperly.
At least seven executives at companies that included Apple Inc. and video game publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. have been charged, and two have entered guilty pleas.
Stock options, which give the holders the right to purchase shares at a set price in the future, typically are used by companies to not only attract but keep top executives.
Although options backdating isn’t necessarily illegal, securities laws require companies to properly disclose it in accounting.
On other matters, Cox said it would be premature to comment on what position the SEC will take in a Enron shareholders lawsuit before the Supreme Court.
The shareholders have asked the SEC to support their allegation that Merrill Lynch & Co., Credit Suisse Group and Barclays PLC should be held as equally liable as Enron because they were participants in the energy company’s accounting fraud.
The shareholders appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled in March that they cannot proceed with their $40 billion class-action lawsuit.
Enron entered bankruptcy proceedings in December 2001 and later collapsed amid an accounting scandal after seeking to hide billions of dollars in debt.
Cox was in Denver to give the keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Securities Conference, which drew about 400 legal and finance professionals.
He told the participants the SEC may hold round-table meetings to gather ideas about the best way to increase access to international markets.