If you’ll think back to the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the Enron scandal (among others such as Tyco, Global Crossing, and WorldCom) the climate of distrust and dramatic malfeasance demanded reform of corporate accounting, governance, and other business practices. Accordingly, U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law name that’s easier to remember than the actual full legislation name: The American Competitiveness and Corporate Accountability Act of 2002. In summary, the legislation required adherence to certain governance standards by corporate management, and expanded the role the governing board plays in financial and auditing oversight and procedures. It also applied standards of operation to public accounting firms.
Sarbanes-Oxley’s intended consequences were multitudinous, including closing accounting loopholes, increasing accountability and disclosure requirements, rebuilding public trust in American corporations, and increasing penalties for corporate and executive wrongdoing.
Although Sarbanes-Oxley was passed with publicly-traded companies top mind, there are two provisions that are explicitly relevant to tax-exempt organizations: the whistleblower policy and document retention and destruction protocol.
A whistleblower policy is not technically mandated for nonprofit organizations, but it makes smart sense to adopt such a policy. Why? First off, it encourages stakeholders in the organization to bring attention to problems in the early stages where issues may be more solvable. It’s also important for state and federal liability purposes and ensuring organization executives, board members, and other stakeholders understand their right to report as well as the implications of inhibiting such reporting.
Section 1107 of Sarbanes-Oxley makes it a federal crime to knowingly take any action with the intent of retaliation against a person who has reported truthful information to law enforcement relating to any current or possible federal offense. Violators of this provision are subject to fines and/or imprisonment for up to 10 years.
An ideal nonprofit whistleblower policy should both set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers. A well-written whistleblower policy can encourage an appropriate, swift response of investigation and solutions to complaints.
Form 990, the annual information report the majority of nonprofit organizations are required to file, states the following in its instructions:
A whistleblower policy encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization, specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation, and identifies those staff or board members or outside parties to whom such information can be reported.
The acts of document retention and destruction are also covered under Sarbanes-Oxley. Section 802 of the Act defines the criminal penalties for tampering with documents in relation to federal investigations and bankruptcy. It reads:
Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
You read that right. Violators of this provision can be fined and/or imprisoned for up to 20 years.
Additionally, Section 1102 of Sarbanes-Oxley makes it a crime to tamper with a record or otherwise impede an official proceeding. Violators of the provision may be fined and/or imprisoned up to 20 years if they “corruptly” alter, destroy, mutilate, or conceal a record, document or other objects, or make an attempt to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding. (Note, the term “corruptly” is not defined, but your organization can and should use the best judgment on the word.)
Your nonprofit should include specifics related to these Sarbanes-Oxley provisions in a “document retention and destruction policy.” This policy should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. It should also outline proper deletion and or destruction techniques to ensure compliance and reduce liability risks.
Get Policies Set in Place: 10 for 990 Policy Special
Nonprofit organizations should have relevant and updated policies in place that provide guidance for compliance with these Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. I’m offering the 10 for 990 nonprofit policy special where I’ll draft 10 policies related to annual reporting on Form 990 for only $990. Two of the policies included—whistleblower and document retention and destruction—specifically address requirements under Sarbanes-Oxley.
Seize the opportunity to get strong policies in place for a compliant future! Additionally, if you have specific questions about Sarbanes-Oxley compliance don’t hesitate to contact me directly via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by phone (515-371-6077).