Our mid-year report one year ago presented an exciting opportunity to discuss a time of great change at the SEC. A new Chair and a new Director of Enforcement had recently assumed the reins and begun making bold policy pronouncements. One year later, things have stabilized somewhat. The hot-button issues identified early in the new SEC administration—admissions for settling parties, a growing number of trials (and, for the agency, trial losses), and a renewed focus on public company accounting—remain the leading issues a year later, albeit with some interesting developments.
Posts Tagged ‘SEC enforcement’
As the debate continues over whether and how to punish companies for unlawful conduct, U.S. federal prosecutors continue to rely significantly on Non-Prosecution Agreements (“NPAs”) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (“DPAs”) (collectively, “agreements”). Such agreements have emerged as a flexible alternative to prosecutorial declination, on the one hand, and trials or guilty pleas, on the other. Companies and prosecutors alike rely on NPAs and DPAs to resolve allegations of corporate misconduct while mitigating the collateral consequences that guilty pleas or verdicts can inflict on companies, employees, communities, or the economy. NPAs and DPAs allow prosecutors, without obtaining a criminal conviction, to ensure that corporate wrongdoers receive punishment, including often eye-popping financial penalties, deep reforms to corporate culture through compliance requirements, and independent monitoring or self-reporting arrangements. Although the trend has been robust for more than a decade, Attorney General Eric Holder’s statements in connection with recent prosecutions of financial institutions underscore the dynamic environment in which NPAs and DPAs have evolved.
Irregularities in financial statements lead to inefficiencies in capital allocation and can become costly to investors, regulators, and potentially taxpayers if left unchecked. Finding an effective way to detect accounting irregularities has been challenging for academics and regulators. Responding to this challenge, we rely on a peculiar mathematical property known as Benford’s Law to create a summary red-flag measure to capture the likelihood that a company may be manipulating its financial statement numbers.
In this year’s Foreword, Dougherty differentiates the need for directors to focus on their core mission of informed oversight and vigilance rather than merely reacting to the constant influx of “daily corporate governance commentary,” and explores other front-burner issues, such as the marked increase in SEC enforcement actions and other recent SEC initiatives; the continuing trend of class action suits as de facto settlement instruments; proxy advisory firm priorities for directors; and new guidance from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) that recommends that audit committee directors discuss internal auditing deficiencies with their auditors.
The SEC today has about 4,200 employees, located in Washington and 11 regional offices across the country, including one in San Francisco that is very ably led by Regional Director Jina Choi, who is here [June 23, 2014]. Many of you have likely had some contact with our Division of Corporation Finance, which, among other things, has the responsibility to review your periodic filings and your securities offerings. Some of you that work for or represent a company that we oversee know our staff in our National Exam Program, and I imagine a few of your companies know something about our Enforcement Division staff. Our other major divisions are Investment Management, Trading and Markets and the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis.
So that is just a quick snapshot of the structure of the SEC and as you undoubtedly know, the SEC has a lot on its regulatory plate that is relevant to you—completion of the mandated rulemakings under the Dodd Frank Act and JOBS Act, adopting a final rule on money market funds, enhancing the structure and transparency of our equity and fixed income markets, reviewing the effectiveness of disclosures by public companies, to name just a few. But what you may not be as focused on is the mindset of the agency on some other things that are also relevant to you as directors.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued its long-awaited decision today on the appeal from Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s rejection in 2011 of the consent settlement in United States Securities and Exchange Commission v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc. The Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s order, holding that the lower court abused its discretion by applying an incorrect legal standard to its review of the settlement. The Second Circuit clarified the manner in which district courts should review SEC consent settlements, emphasizing the deference courts owe to the SEC and the parties with which it settles, including on the parties’ decision to settle without an admission of liability.
In its decision, the Court held that a district court must review consent decrees with enforcement agencies for fairness and reasonableness, with the additional requirement in cases seeking injunctive relief that the “public interest would not be disserved.” The opinion explained that “[a]bsent a substantial basis in the record for concluding that the proposed consent decree does not meet these requirements, the district court is required to enter the order.” In general, the Court noted that the “job of determining whether the proposed S.E.C. consent decree best serves the public interest … rests squarely with the S.E.C., and its decision merits significant deference.”
In recent weeks, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has revealed that it is closely reviewing how private equity fund advisers disclose the allocation of fees and expenses to their investors. The SEC is primarily implementing this review through the Presence Exam Initiative (the Initiative), which has been initiated through the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE).  Under the Initiative, the SEC has examined more than 150 newly-registered private equity advisers. According to the OCIE, the goal is to examine 25% of the new private fund registrants by the end of the year. The SEC has indicated that over 50% of the newly-registered private equity fund advisers that it has examined to date have either violated the law or have demonstrated material weaknesses in their controls related to the allocation of fees and expenses. The SEC has identified inadequate policies and procedures and inadequate disclosure as related issues, with deficiencies in these arenas running between 40% and 60% of all adviser examinations conducted, depending on the year. This sheer number of perceived deficiencies likely will result in increased regulatory investigations, enforcement activity and possible sanctions, as well as increased exposure to investor-initiated lawsuits. As a result, (i) sophisticated fund investors will likely start asking questions to determine whether their fund managers engage in these practices and (ii) private equity firms should consider compliance and disclosure practices that can help limit this exposure.
Although US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions related to financial fraud and issuer disclosures have been on a decline since 2007, recent statements and actions suggest that the SEC is likely to re-focus its efforts on detecting, pursuing, and preventing accounting fraud.  Since her confirmation as Chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White has made it clear that her administration will focus on identifying and investigating accounting abuses at publicly-traded companies.  Among the recent initiatives announced by the SEC are the increased focus on the whistle blower program and the establishment of the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force, the Microcap Fraud Task Force, and the Center for Risk and Quantitative Analytics. 
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Sarbanes-Oxley”) was enacted following the accounting scandals of the early 2000s involving Enron, WorldCom and other public companies. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) in 2010 following the global credit crisis that began a few years earlier. Both statutes offer protections for employees who face retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on corporate misconduct, and Dodd-Frank also provides enhanced monetary incentives to the employees who do so. Given the SEC’s recent and often-stated commitment to strict enforcement of the securities laws, coupled with the fact that the SEC has received over 6,000 whistleblower complaints in the past two years (and has made six awards since inception of its whistleblower reward program in 2011), whistleblowing activity now is a fact of corporate life that is likely to become even more prevalent as awareness spreads of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower reward program.
The SEC’s success is conventionally measured by the number of enforcement actions it brings, the multimillion-dollar fines it secures, and the high-impact trials it wins. But the SEC does more than punish wrongdoing. Over the last twelve years, the SEC has quietly become an important source of compensation for defrauded investors. Since 2002, the SEC has distributed $14.33 billion  to defrauded investors via 236 distribution funds, usually called “fair funds” after the statute that authorizes them.