The week in GRC: BlackRock targets climate and diversity, and SEC approves natural-resources disclosure rule

Dec 18, 2020
This week’s governance, compliance and risk-management stories from around the web

The week in GRC is taking a break for the holidays and will be back in January. Happy Holidays!

Reuters reported that ExxonMobil said it plans to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next five years to support the goals of the Paris climate agreement. The world’s largest oil and gas companies face heavy investor pressure to meet the 2015 Paris climate goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

Church Commissioners for England recently joined growing investor campaigns that demand changes at Exxon and backed calls for a board refresh and development of a strategy for the US oil company’s transition to cleaner fuels. Exxon said it would reduce the intensity of operated upstream GHG emissions by 15 percent to 20 percent by 2025, compared with 2016 levels.

– The SEC awarded more than $300,000 to a whistleblower who became aware of potential securities law violations in connection with audit-related responsibilities. Individuals with audit or compliance responsibilities are generally not eligible for awards, but a whistleblower who reasonably believes that an entity is engaging in conduct that would impede the investigation falls within one of the exceptions to that rule.

The whistleblower receiving the award had a reasonable basis to believe the entity would impede the commission’s investigation, according to the SEC. It is the fourth time the agency has paid a whistleblower with internal audit or compliance-related responsibilities. ‘This award is an example of the important role that audit and compliance professionals can play in assisting the commission’s enforcement efforts, especially when the entity is attempting to thwart an investigation,’ said Jane Norberg, chief of the SEC’s office of the whistleblower.’

– The SEC said criminals are defrauding a growing number of investors by exploiting chaos arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, CNBC reported. Investors should be on high alert for Ponzi schemes, fake certificates of deposit, bogus stock promotions and community-based financial scams, the agency warned: ‘The SEC has recently experienced a significant uptick in tips, complaints and referrals involving investment scams.’

– Ireland’s Data Protection Commission said it is fining Twitter €450,000 ($546,000) for failing to document or properly notify the regulator within 72 hours of learning of a data breach disclosed in January 2019 that exposed some users’ private tweets, according to the WSJ. ‘We take responsibility for this mistake and remain fully committed to protecting the privacy and data of our customers,’ said Damien Kieran, Twitter’s chief privacy officer, adding that the delay in notification was an ‘unanticipated consequence of staffing between Christmas Day 2018 and New Year’s Day.’

The case is the first in a pipeline of privacy cases involving US tech companies in Ireland. The Data Protection Commission leads enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for US companies that have their regional headquarters in the country. Helen Dixon, head of the commission, said GDPR enforcement and power sharing is a work in progress, and that her office has been handling its cases methodically to make sure its decisions stand up to expected court challenges.

CNBC reported that BlackRock has updated its global principles and guidelines to reflect a commitment to climate and diversity. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘investors and others will be looking to see how companies are rebuilding their businesses for long-term sustainability and value creation,’ BlackRock said in its 2021 stewardship expectations. ‘The changes we have made to our stewardship principles and voting guidelines strengthen our expectations of management and boards in ensuring companies have a sustainable long-term business model.’

Among the changes being implemented for next year, the asset manager said it expects companies to disclose a plan for transitioning to a lower-carbon economy, report key stakeholders and business interests and improve racial and gender diversity on large corporate boards. ‘Where we believe companies are not moving with sufficient speed and urgency, our most frequent course of action will be to hold directors accountable by voting against their re-election,’ BlackRock said in the report.

CNN reported that stock-trading app Robinhood agreed to pay a $65 million fine to settle SEC charges that it engaged in deceptive practices that hurt its clients. The agency charged Robinhood with failing to disclose the ‘receipt of payments from trading firms for routing customer orders to them, and with failing to satisfy its duty to seek the best reasonably available terms to execute customer orders.’

‘Robinhood provided misleading information to customers about the true costs of choosing to trade with the firm,’ said Stephanie Avakian, director of the SEC’s enforcement division. ‘Brokerage firms cannot mislead customers about order-execution quality.’

Robinhood settled without admitting or denying wrongdoing and said it has changed the practices cited in the complaint. The company said it has significantly improved its practices and that it has established relationships with additional market makers to ensure the best trades possible for its customers.

– The SEC approved an anti-corruption rule requiring natural resources companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, the WSJ reported. The rule passed along party lines, with Democratic commissioners saying the latest iteration of the rule – the SEC’s third attempt – was too weak. Republican commissioners, along with SEC chairman Jay Clayton, expressed skepticism over the Dodd-Frank Act provision behind the rule and whether the agency was best positioned to fulfill its policy purpose.

 

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