Former regulator and Crown attorney Tom Atkinson has been named the new head of enforcement at the Ontario Securities Commission, thrusting him into the spotlight of securities law enforcement in Canada from a far quieter life of mystery novel writing.
Mr. Atkinson becomes director of enforcement as the OSC faces criticisms for a weak track record on fighting securities violations and as it tackles a major stock-options backdating case involving the high-profile executives of Research In Motion Ltd.
His predecessor, Michael Watson, left the commission in September, leaving the enforcement division without a head for the past five months.
Mr. Atkinson previously ran Market Regulation Services Inc. (RS), which regulated trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange until it merged with the Investment Dealers Association in 2007. He left the industry in August, 2007, at the time of the merger.
Former RS board member Eric Kirzner said Mr. Atkinson is a "bulldog" and has the right personality to be a tough enforcement director. "I think it's going to be a great choice by the OSC," he said. "That's the background he really comes from - enforcement ... He really is a policeman."
When reached yesterday, Mr. Atkinson said he could not comment yet on his new role.
Acquaintances say he has spent his time since leaving RS completing a legal thriller novel set in a Crown attorney's office. Mr. Atkinson is a former assistant Crown attorney in Ontario, and was part of the team of Crown counsel on the prosecution of serial killer Paul Bernardo.
"He seemed to be having fun with it when I talked to him about it," said former RS director Gerry Rocchi. "But he'll be busy, so if he's not finished it yet, it will be hard for him to finish it now." Mr. Rocchi said Mr. Atkinson "is a person who brought a lot of passion to enforcement, and my sense is Tom really cared deeply about the integrity of the market."
Former OSC chief litigator Kelley McKinnon, who left the commission in November, said the OSC is wise to seek an enforcement director with both a strong prosecution background and strong regulatory experience. "Selecting the right cases and prosecuting them properly, there's a lot of challenge to that," she said. "And you're better off with somebody with a prosecution and a market enforcement background in this environment."
Mr. Atkinson was believed to be one of two people on the final shortlist for the position, along with Sasha Angus, who has been serving as a special adviser at the OSC on enforcement matters.
An OSC spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that Mr. Angus will remain at the commission in his current job as special adviser to OSC chairman David Wilson.
Securities lawyers said yesterday they see potential for structural difficulties in having both a director of enforcement and a special adviser on enforcement matters.
"For the life of me, the people who have been trying to figure out what [Mr. Angus's]job is don't really have a good idea," said securities lawyer Joe Groia, previously director of enforcement at OSC.
Lawyer Phil Anisman said "there are inherent difficulties in the construct" of Mr. Angus's position, arguing it has the potential to create "a buffer" between the enforcement staff and senior officers of the commission. "I think it does raise a question about potential difficulties and lines of authority," Mr. Anisman said.
OSC chairman David Wilson said in a statement the commission was looking for a "strategic thinker" to lead its enforcement operations.
"When we commenced our search, we knew that we would be seeking an individual who is not only an experienced litigator, but also a strategic thinker - a person who has a demonstrated record of effecting change," he said. "Tom is that person."