In a development that is in my experience absolutely unprecedented, Phillip Bennett, the former CEO of defunct futures trader Refco, after having pled guilty to criminal charges, is actively cooperating with the lead plaintiffs’ counsel in the civil securities lawsuit pending against the company and its former directors and officers. As discussed below, Bennett’s conduct, in addition to being highly unusual, could also raise some potentially significant insurance coverage questions.
A detailed description of the circumstances surrounding Bennett’s cooperation in the class action can be found in a May 28, 2008 article (here) by Bloomberg News reporter Thom Weidlich. The circumstances are also discussed in a WSJ.com Law Blog post (here).
Within weeks after it went public in August 2005, Refco announced that Bennett had hidden $430 million in bad debts from the company’s auditors and investors. The details of the scandal can be found here. IPO investors initiated securities class action lawsuits almost immediately. (Refer here for background regarding the class action lawsuit; a website devoted to the lawsuit can be found here.).
On February 15, 2008, Bennett pled guilty to bank fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and 17 other charges.
In connection with Bennett’s upcoming June 19, 2008 sentencing, counsel for the lead plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit – Sean Coffey of the Bernstein Litowitz firm and Stuart Grant of the Grant & Eisenhofer firm – submitted a letter to the court to provide information they hope “proves helpful as the Court considers the appropriate sentence.” A copy of their letter can be found here.
According to the attorneys’ letter, after Bennett pled guilty, his lawyer approached the class counsel to offer cooperation in connection with the civil case. According to their letter, “Bennett has helped to advance our understanding about matters within Refco, providing insights not readily discernable from our ongoing review of documents or cross-examination of deposition witnesses who are almost universally aligned with the defendants.” The letter goes on to report that Bennett has identified “‘red flags’ and other circumstances that would have alerted a diligent gatekeeper that things at Refco were not what they appeared to be.”
The letter states that Bennett’s cooperation has “materially strengthened the class claims against a number of defendants.” The defendants specifically mentioned in the letter are Thomas H. Lee, the IPO Underwriters, Grant Thorton, and Mayer Brown. The letter states that:
In the opinion of Lead Counsel, his assistance has substantially enhanced the ability of Lead Plaintiffs to hold those defendants more fully accountable for their role in the events resulting in the devastating losses suffered by Refco investors.
The Bloomberg article and the WSJ.com Law Blog post linked to above contain remarks from several commentators as to whether the letter will benefit Bennett as his sentencing.
There are a number of interesting things about the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ letter. Among other things, Bennett’s cooperation holds the prospect of shifting to Refco’s outside professionals some of the financial consequences for Bennett’s own criminal misconduct, based on their supposed failure to stop or catch him.
Another interesting thing, interesting to me at least, is the potential effect from Bennett’s behavior on the D&O insurance coverage that might otherwise be available for other former Refco directors and officers in connection with the Refco securities lawsuit. I emphasize at the outset that I have no direct knowledge of Refco’s D&O insurance program, and I am expressing no views about the availability of coverage under its D&O insurance. My comments here are strictly to note a potential coverage issue that might arise as a result of Bennett’s cooperation with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The specific insurance issue relates to the possibility that Bennett’s cooperation might trigger the so-called “Insured vs. Insured” exclusion (or IvI as it is more commonly known) that is found in most D&O insurance policies. A typical IvI exclusion provides, among other things, that the insurers is not liable for any loss in connection with a claim “which is brought by any security holder or member of an Organization, whether directly or derivatively, unless such security holder or member’s claim is instigated and continued totally independent of, and totally without the solicitation of, or assistance of, or active participation of, or intervention of, any Executive.”
Bennett’s extensive cooperation with the plaintiffs – the significance and materiality of which the plaintiffs’ lawyers expressly acknowledged – would appear at least potentially to implicate this D&O policy exclusion. Now, as a result of his criminal plea, Bennett himself would likely no longer have coverage under the policy, as would appear to be the case for other Refco officers who were criminally convicted in April of this year. But the other former Refco directors and officers, if any, who remain as defendants in the civil lawsuit and who have not pled guilty or been criminally convicted, may still hope to have remaining D&O insurance limits available to fund their defense and indemnity. (A number of the individual defendants have already entered settlements with the class, as described here.) Bennett’s cooperation with the plaintiffs could at least potentially raise coverage concerns, to the extent coverage is otherwise available to these persons.
In other words, Bennett’s cooperation not only represents a threat to Refco’s former outside advisors, but could also have serious adverse consequences for the company’s former directors and officers.
These events, as noted, are highly unusual and unlikely to recur. Nevertheless, the potential insurance issues that Bennett’s conduct could trigger are a reminder that there claims resolution is a complicated process, with a host of potentially significant consequences at every point. Although sometimes overlooked, the insurance issues can sometimes be particularly significant.