The SEC might add as many as 120 new slots for enforcement lawyers and accountants later this year. That's how many new bodies one securities law expert believes the agency will need to restore its reputation as a market watchdog.
"There's definitely an appetite to increase the enforcement at the SEC," Bruce Carton, the editor of Securities Docket and a former SEC official, tells eFinancialCareers News. "That's what Congress wanted to hear and that's what Mary Schapiro told them."
Schapiro, nominated by President Obama to head the commission, promises an aggressive move to reinvigorate enforcement. "With investor confidence shaken, it is imperative that the SEC be given the resources and the support it needs to investigate and go after those who cut corners, cheat investors, and break the law," she told a Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 15.
10 Percent Fewer Investigators Than in 2005
Five days earlier, SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar called for rebuilding and empowering the agency's enforcement staff and concentrating resources on cases with greater reach into the market.
In a speech, Aguilar said in 2008 the SEC employed 10 percent fewer attorneys able to investigate cases than it did in 2005 (594, down from 654). He said staff turnover in the enforcement division hit a five-year high in 2006, Sarbanes-Oxley notwithstanding.
Carton says merely rebuilding enforcement staff to the 2005 level won't be enough. "If you're going to make any meaningful difference, you're going to have to bump that number up," he says. A former senior counsel in the SEC's Division of Enforcement, Carton figures that could require boosting staff by 20 percent, or 120 positions.
He says the SEC couldn't just reassign that many existing staffers to enforcement, but would have to ask Congress to enlarge its budget to hire from outside. The current climate, shaped by Wall Street's exploding balance sheets and the Madoff scandal, favors such a step.
Most SEC investigators are lawyers with at least a couple of years' experience in securities law. The enforcement division also employs accountants who help the lawyers gather facts and assemble cases.