Biovail, Canada’s largest publicly traded drug manufacturer, has been in the news probably more than it would like lately. It has had problems with its financial performance, with securities regulators and with its former CEO, Eugene Melnyk. When Mr. Melnyk was at the helm of the company, it was not exactly known for its exemplary corporate governance practices. The board culture worked well for Mr. Melynk, however. For 2001 and 2002 alone, he took home more than $188 million.
While the company did clean up its governance act in some ways, Mr. Melnyk still managed to run afoul of securities regulators in Canada and the United States. Last year, he settled with the OSC on charges of failing to file proper insider trading reports. Since then, new enforcement actions have been taken against him (and certain other past and current Biovail employees) by the SEC and the OSC in connection with accounting statements. It will be interesting to watch whether the OSC, not known in recent years for its vigorous prosecution of securities violators, will come down harder on Mr. Melnyk because of his previous encounter with that agency. We’ve posted a few thoughts on this saga over the past year.
The current issue of Canadian Business contains some comments from an interview with me on the Biovail/Melnyk travails.
Last week, we received inquiries from the press asking for a comment on Eugene Melnyk’s plans to change the board of Biovail. The published versions omitted our most important point: the SEC’s probe into Mr. Melnyk and Biovail may be the biggest factor in determining any influence he has in the future of the company. The second shoe in the investigation dropped today with the SEC bringing civil charges of accounting fraud against Mr. Melnyk and several other parties. Similar proceedings were also brought in Toronto by the Ontario Securities Commission.
We expect Mr. Melnyk will be putting his plans for the company he founded on hold for a while. He was at the helm of Biovail when the alleged improprieties occurred and his griping about the state of the company now is a little like Conrad Black lambasting the board and management of Hollinger Inc., and its Sun-Times Media Group subsidiary, from his baronial power base at the Coleman federal prison complex in Florida.
The complaints also included proceedings against Biovail’s most senior financial officials: current Controller John Miszuk and current CFO Kenneth Howling. The company has announced that they have been reassigned to other positions in the organization. Biovail needs to be more specific about how close those roles are to financial functions in the company as the market does not generally respond well when so many past and current officials are the subject of regulatory proceedings, especially those involving fraud. (See Hollinger).
The company itself paid a $10 million penalty to the SEC for its role in the alleged accounting scheme.
Today’s Financial Post has some comments from me on yesterday’s settlement between the Ontario Securities Commission and Nortel Networks. Peter Brieger does a good job setting out the background. Like many things the OSC has done lately, some of which we have commented on before, this one leaves us wondering if anyone is really home at Canada’s so-called premier securities regulator.
Last week, the OSC settled with Biovail founder Eugene Melnyk for $ 1 million —the same amount it is seeking from Nortel. The Melnyk settlement involved an individual. Nortel, on the other hand, is a leading corporate issuer and the offence took place repeatedly over a period of several years. If the settlement with Melnyk was fair and appropriate, it is hard to see the OSC’s deal with Nortel in the same light.
For Nortel only to contribute toward the costs of the investigation opens the door to others seeing it as just a cost of doing business improperly. Unlike the Melnyk situation, where no investors appeared to suffer, Nortel’s actions resulted in investors being systematically deceived and misled over a considerable period.
This decision sends precisely the wrong signal, but it is consistent with the lame image the OSC continues to create in the minds of investors who are looking for more than a cost of investigation outcome. And it raises the question: What exactly is the business of the OSC? It seems to go out of its way to find reasons not to pursue potential wrong doing or to prosecute. Now, the fact that the executives on whose watch this occurred are no longer there seems to be the latest excuse. Nortel is a corporate entity with its own legal rights and obligations. Executives were not acting on their own behalf; they were acting for the company. Shareholders relied upon the company’s actions and statements; they were not relying upon the executives in their personal capacities. But the OSC seems to want to take the easiest route to making it look like it is still on the scene when it is doing little more than an impersonation of a regulator. I predict some investors will be more outraged by the actions of the OSC than by the events that prompted the investigation in the first place, and will again be demanding reform of Canada’s system of securities regulation.
It is hard to regard this outcome as anything but one more indication that the OSC is out of touch with the investors it is supposed to be protecting and lacks the will and the judgment needed to properly regulate an important sector of Canada’s capital markets.