ProPublica continues its coverage of the case of Carmen Segarra, a former Goldman Sachs employee who was fired after taking her job as a compliance officer seriously enough to blow the whistle on the banking firm for failing to enforce a conflict-of-interest policy. Now the New York Fed has asked a judge to throw out Segarra’s wrongful termination suit.
By Jake Bernstein
ProPublica, Nov. 15, 2013, 2:42 p.m.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has asked a judge to throw out a lawsuit by a former bank examiner who says she was dismissed after finding fault with Goldman Sachs’ conflict-of-interest policies.
ProPublica reported the allegations last month by Carmen Segarra, who the New York Fed had assigned to examine aspects of Goldman Sachs in November 2011. She was fired seven months later.
In its motion to dismiss Segarra’s lawsuit, the Fed disputed that she is a whistleblower and characterized what transpired as “a non-actionable disagreement between a supervised employee and more senior colleagues over how to interpret a Federal Reserve policy.”
Segarra had been hired as part of an effort by the New York Federal Reserve to comply with new authority it received from Congress to monitor so-called Too-Big-to-Fail financial institutions. The Fed recruited experts to act as “risk specialists” to examine different aspects of these complex firms.
Segarra, who previously had worked in some of the Nation’s largest banks, was tasked with examining legal and compliance functions at Goldman. Her supervisors told her specifically to look at whether Goldman was compliant with Fed guidance that the bank had a firm-wide conflict of interest policy, according to her Oct. 10 complaint.
At the time, Goldman had been buffeted by allegations in media reports and lawsuits over how it handled conflicts of interest. Segarra determined that Goldman did not have such a firm-wide policy. Although her fellow legal and compliance specialists working at the other banks agreed with her findings, however, the Fed’s senior official onsite at Goldman, Michael Silva, ultimately did not, according to her complaint.
Silva and his deputy, Michael Koh, tried to convince Segarra to change her findings, the lawsuit says. Three business days after sending an email to them explaining that the evidence she had gathered made it impossible for her to change her conclusions, Silva fired her. Before being escorted from the building, Silva told her he had lost confidence in her ability to follow directions and not to jump to conclusions, Segarra says.
Segarra’s suit in U.S. District Court names as defendants the New York Fed, Silva, Koh and her direct supervisor, Johnathan Kim. She alleged wrongful termination, breach of employment contract and that the defendants interfered with protected conduct she was exercising as a bank examiner.
Segarra’s lawsuit cites a Federal law that allows bank examiners to sue for wrongful termination if they are fired for providing information regarding “any possible violation of any law or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
In its motion to dismiss, the New York Fed said that Segarra worked “at will” and so there could be no “breach of contract.” It also said that she was fired for cause and that the guidance she was told to use to examine Goldman was advisory and not a regulation, so the bank could therefore not be in violation. It further argued that since some of the information Segarra used to make her determination came from Goldman, she technically did not “provide” it to the Fed.
In its filing, the Fed cited a Code of Conduct policy and a 2011 Business Standards Committee Report as evidence that Goldman had a firm-wide policy governing conflicts of interest policy. Goldman, which is not a defendant in Segarra’s lawsuit, has said that it has such a policy.
“She rushed to judgments that even her own evidence refuted,” the New York Fed’s motion said.
The 2011 Business Standards Committee Report the Fed cited mentions plans to update and provide to all employees a conflict–of-interest policy but does not detail policies or procedures. As for it its code of conduct, Segarra told ProPublica that Goldman itself did not believe it constituted a conflict of interest policy since it did not provide it to regulators as such.
“My direct management and some of my peers did not think Goldman’s Code of Conduct was a conflicts-of-interest policy,” she told ProPublica in an interview. “Policies in banks are actually pretty standardized documents, with clear titles and content directly related to the title/purpose of the document, written in a language meant to be understood by every employee at every level.”
Segarra’s attorney, Linda Stengel, disputed the Fed’s contention that her client is not a whistleblower. “Obviously, Carmen is a whistleblower, and obviously, her work as a bank examiner is protected conduct,” said Stengle. “Those conclusions are simple common sense to most everyone, except FRBNY, apparently.”
Segarra’s complaint asked for reinstatement, back pay, compensation for lost benefits and damages. The Fed’s motion rejected reinstatement or damages, contending that Segarra “misappropriated and published confidential supervisory information” as exhibits in her lawsuit.