The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) continue to deploy DPAs and NPAs aggressively. This past year left no doubt that such resolutions are a vital part of the federal corporate law enforcement arsenal, affording the U.S. government an avenue both to punish and reform corporations accused of wrongdoing. In early December, for example, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for DOJ’s Criminal Division, Leslie Caldwell, highlighted the importance of negotiated resolutions that allowed DOJ to “impose reforms, impose compliance controls, and impose all sorts of behavioral change.” She concluded: “In the United States system at least [settlement] is a more powerful tool than actually going to trial.” DOJ and the SEC have used negotiated resolutions, including DPAs and NPAs, to require companies to implement an effective compliance program. In 2014 we witnessed a number of notable developments in negotiated resolutions that demonstrate that the traditional hallmarks of DPAs and NPAs, including post-settlement compliance and reporting obligations, are here to stay.
Posts Tagged ‘SEC enforcement’
It’s been a busy year for securities regulators. The SEC recently reported that in FY 2014 new investigative approaches and innovative use of data and analytical tools contributed to a record 755 enforcement actions with orders totaling $4.16 billion in disgorgement and penalties. By comparison, in FY 2013 it brought 686 enforcement actions with orders totaling $3.4 billion in disgorgement and penalties. We do not yet have FINRA’s fiscal year 2014 enforcement action totals, but we know that FINRA too has taken a more aggressive approach to enforcement—in 2013 FINRA barred 135 more individuals and suspended 221 more individuals than it did in 2012. Moreover, like the SEC, FINRA increasingly is relying on data and analytical tools to make its enforcement program more effective. FINRA’s proposed Comprehensive Automated Risk Data System (CARDS) is a further step in that direction. CARDS will help FINRA more quickly identify patterns of transactions and monitor for excessive concentration, lack of suitability, churning, mutual fund switching, and other potentially problematic misconduct. Both broker-dealers and investment advisers now find themselves in a position in which, from an enforcement perspective, regulators often have far better data and analytical tools than the firms have.
After a year of “first ever” actions targeting private equity, fund managers should be vigilant, even about seemingly small issues.
In reviewing the results of SEC Enforcement’s fiscal year that ended on September 30, the agency congratulated itself on its comprehensive approach to enforcement and its “first-ever” cases. Private equity fund managers should consider a number of important takeaways.
The SEC Continues to Pursue a Broken Windows/Zero Tolerance Approach
Although the Enforcement Division announced a record number of enforcement actions, and the largest aggregate financial recovery, 2014, unlike in years past, did not include a headline-grabbing case such as Enron, Worldcom or Madoff. More recently, the agency has chosen to emphasize its pursuit of smaller cases as a way of improving compliance in the industry. SEC Chair Mary Jo White and Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney have each touted the agency’s “broken windows” approach to enforcement. A “broken windows” strategy means that the SEC will pursue even the smallest violations on the theory that publicly pursuing smaller matters will reduce the prevalence of larger violations. Ceresney has described “broken windows” as a zero tolerance policy. This past year illustrated the agency’s commitment to applying enforcement sanctions to what some might consider “foot fault” incidents. For example, in September 2014, the SEC announced a package of three dozen cases involving a failure to promptly file Section 13D and Section 13G reports, as well as Forms 3 and 4. Many of the filers charged were just days or weeks late in disclosing their positions. In announcing the cases, Ceresney emphasized that inadvertence was not a defense to late filings.
Two recent Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards suggest that the program is becoming the kind of “game changer” for law enforcement that many had predicted. The program, which took effect in August 2011, mandates the payment of bounties to persons who voluntarily provide information leading to a successful securities enforcement action in which more than $1 million is recovered. Informants are entitled to receive between 10 and 30 percent of the amounts recovered, with the precise amount to be determined by the SEC.
Last month, the SEC announced that it brought enforcement actions primarily relating to Section 16(a) under the Securities Exchange Act against 34 defendants. The defendants were 13 individuals who were or had been officers or directors of public companies, five individual investors, ten investment funds/advisers and six public companies.
This post briefly discusses several noteworthy points regarding this development and also discusses practical steps that companies could consider taking in response.
On September 10, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an unprecedented enforcement sweep against 34 companies and individuals for alleged failures to timely file with the SEC various Section 16(a) filings (Forms 3, 4 and 5) and Schedules 13D and 13G (the “September 10 actions”).  The September 10 actions named 13 corporate officers or directors, five individuals and 10 investment firms with beneficial ownership of publicly traded companies, and six public companies; all but one settled the claims without admitting or denying the allegations. The SEC emphasized that the filing requirements may be violated even inadvertently, without any showing of scienter. Notably, among the executives targeted by the SEC were some who had provided their employers with trading information and relied on the company to make the requisite SEC filings on their behalf.
Four years ago this month, with the country still reeling from financial crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act–the most sweeping financial reform effort since the Great Depression. The goal of Dodd-Frank was as ambitious as its scope; as President Barack Obama remarked, the legislation would “restore markets in which we reward hard work and responsibility and innovation, not recklessness and greed.”
Despite the fact that corporations and interest groups spent about $30 billion lobbying policy makers over the last decade (Center for Responsive Politics, 2012), there is a lack of robust empirical evidence on whether firms’ lobbying expenditures create value for their shareholders. Moreover, while the public perception of the lobbying process is that it involves unethical behavior that may bias rather than inform politicians, this is difficult to show since unethical practices are not typically observable. In our recent ECGI working paper, The Corporate Value of (Corrupt) Lobbying, we identify events that exogenously affect the ability of firms to lobby, and find that firms that lobby more experience a significant decrease in market value around these events. Investigating the channels by which lobbying may add value, we find evidence suggesting that the value partly arises from potentially unethical arrangements between firms and politicians.
On July 30, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) advanced a novel theory of fraud against the former CEO (Marc Sherman) and CFO (Edward Cummings) of Quality Services Group, Inc. (“QSGI”), a Florida-based computer equipment company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The SEC alleged that the CEO misrepresented the extent of his involvement in evaluating internal controls and that the CEO and CFO knew of significant internal controls issues with the company’s inventory practices that they failed to disclose to investors and internal auditors. This case did not involve any restatement of financial statements or allegations of accounting fraud, merely disclosure issues around internal controls and involvement in a review of the same by senior management. The SEC’s approach has the potential to broaden practical exposure to liability for corporate officers who sign financial statements and certifications required under Section 302 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”). By advancing a theory of fraud premised on internal controls issues without establishing an actionable accounting misstatement, the SEC is continuing to demonstrate that it will extend the range of conduct for which it has historically pursued fraud claims against corporate officers.
The last thing hedge funds need is another wake up call about the risks of liability for trading on the basis of material nonpublic information. But if they did, a July 17 article in the Wall Street Journal would provide it. According to the article, the SEC is investigating nearly four dozen hedge funds, asset managers and other firms to determine whether they traded on material nonpublic information concerning a change in Medicare reimbursement rates. If so, it appears that the material nonpublic information, if any, may have originated from a staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee, was then communicated to a law firm lobbyist, was further communicated by the lobbyist to a political intelligence firm, and finally, was communicated to clients who traded. According to an April 3, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, the political intelligence firm issued a flash report to clients on April 1, 2013 at 3:42 p.m.—18 minutes before the market closed and 35 minutes before the government announced that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would increase reimbursements by 3.3%, rather than reduce them 2.3%, as initially proposed. Shares in several large insurance firms rose as much as 6% in the last 18 minutes of trading.