Niiiiiiiiiice. We're impressed that Reuters and Bloomberg both picked up on something that happens - or at least appears to happen - often in bankruptcy cases: a conflict.
Here's the drill: the official committee of unsecured creditors (UCC) in the Payless Holdings LLC case filed an application seeking to employ The Michel-Shaked Group as expert consultants. The mandate included providing "expert consulting services and expert testimony regarding the Debtors' estates' claims relating to the pre-petition dividend recapitalizations and leveraged buyout, including solvency and capital surplus analysis." As a quick refresher, Payless' private equity overlords Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital dividended themselves hundreds of millions of dollars of value via debt incurred - albeit under relatively low interest rates - on the company's balance sheet. The company's debt load - in addition to various other factors characteristic of retail players today - was a major factor in the company's eventual bankruptcy filing.
Payless Holdings LLC - through Munger Tolles & Olson LLP ("MTO") as counsel to "the independent director of the Debtors" - subsequently objected to the UCC's application. The independent director (the "ID") claimed that the application is, at a maximum, duplicative of the services to be rendered by another UCC professional and at a minimum, premature. Why premature? Well, because the ID is conducting, through MTO, his own investigation into the dividend recapitalization claims the company might have against the private equity firms. That investigation is ongoing. Having a simultaneous analysis runs the danger of not only being duplicative and premature but also hindering the Debtors' aggressive proposed timeline for emergence from bankruptcy.
As loyal readers of PETITION know, we're big fans of the (shadiness of the) dividend recap and, as such, we really enjoyed Bloomberg's snark: "That's right, someone close to private equity is investigating private equity firms for doing a very private equity thing." To be clear, separate counsel at the direction of an independent director is investigating the private equity firms. But, close enough.
Let's pull the thread. Payless' main counsel, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, does a ton of private equity work - including, upon information and belief, work for the private equity sponsors implicated here. According to its own retention application, K&E has been representing Payless since 2012 as general corporate counsel. The private equity transaction dates back to 2012. Curious. K&E began representing the Debtors in connection with restructuring matters in November 2016; its engagement letter is dated January 4, 2017.
The ID presumably got his mandate because he has "served as an independent or disinterested director for various companies in financial distress and restructurings." Among his qualifications are four other current director engagements including iHeartMedia Inc. and Energy Future Intermediate Holding Company LLC. Recognizing that the recap might be at issue, the ID hired separate counsel shortly after joining the board in January 2017 - right around the same time that K&E got hot-and-heavy on the restructuring side (if the engagement letter date is any indication).
So, to summarize, K&E and management have been working with the private equity owners for five years. During that time, the dividend recaps occurred. The ID came on board right around the same time that K&E's restructuring team got enmeshed with the company. The same ID has a board portfolio of 5 directorships, 60% of which are for companies that are using K&E as restructuring counsel as we speak. Meanwhile, we have to assume that the ID gets paid tens of thousand of dollars for each board mandate with, perhaps, some equity consideration thrown in for good measure. Defensively, the objection drops a nice little footnote to assure us all that the ID is truly independent:
Perhaps the benefit of the doubt ought to be given to the ID and approval of the Shaked application delayed until after the ID completes his investigation. After all, if he comes down against the private equity shops, the application is moot. On the flip side, well, he won't. Notably, the objection already lays the case that the company relied in its business judgment on the opinions of Duff & Phelps, which issued a solvency opinion and presentation at the time of the transaction(s). Naturally, the UCC won't believe it and will push, again, for this engagement. Presumably, the company will jam them with the "train has left the station" defense. The upshot: if we were litigating this on behalf of the UCC we would certainly call into question the actual "independence" of the investigation sooner rather than later and see if the Judge bites. If done tastefully and in a way that doesn't impugn the character of the ID (which we are in no way advocating), it will at least somewhat offset the impression the Debtors are leaving with the Duff & Phelps bit and plant the seed in the Judge's mind for consideration upon the results of the investigation.
The hearing on the matter was scheduled for May 31 but was subsequently pushed indefinitely.