Internal Investigations and Attorney-Client Privilege: CAVEAT SPEAKER

November 8, 2012

592542_businessman_walking.jpgJoseph M. Elles, Carter's Inc.'s former Vice President of Sales, is facing federal criminal charges alleging that he aided Carter's in misstating its income in various Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The case is United States v. Elles, No. 1:11-CR-445 (N.D. Ga). Elles has objected to the government's attempts to introduce into evidence statements that he made to attorneys conducting an internal investigation for Carter's. (See U.S. v. Elles Response in Opposition to Motion to Admit Defendant's Statements.pdf) The government contends that Elles admitted his guilt during the course of a seven hour interview with counsel that conducted the internal investigation. Elles disagrees, arguing that his statements are "a far cry from the elements necessary to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as alleged."

Elles raises several arguments why his statements should not be admitted. First, he claims that his cooperation with the internal investigation was coerced because Carter's said it would withhold his severance payments if he did not participate. He also attacked counsel's motives, calling them "former SEC and AUSA attorneys [who] were working hand in glove with prosecutors." As proof of this collusion, Elles pointed out that Carter's immediately waived privilege and turned over his interview to the FBI and the United States Attorney's Office the day after the interview was conducted. Elles also argues that if the portion of the interview that the government seeks to introduce is allowed, that he should be allowed to introduce other portions of his interview (which was summarized by counsel in a 33 page memorandum) and to cross examine the attorneys who conducted the interview to explain the context of his statements and to demonstrate that, as Vice President of Sales, he was not responsible for deciding how "accounting issues" were to be reported on financial statements.

Mr. Elles' co-defendant, Carter's former President, Joseph Pacifica, has similarly objected to the admission of statements he made to counsel during Carter's internal investigation.

This case highlights a critical dynamic concerning internal corporate investigations. Corporate employees who cooperate in such investigations do so at their own peril. The corporation will ultimately decide whether to assert or to waive privilege. And where, as here, the corporation decides to waive privilege, an individual employee who is incriminated by information over which privilege is waived has little recourse or ability to stop the damage. Our rule, therefore, for corporate employees deciding whether to participate in an internal investigation is caveat speaker.