Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.
Last week brought more bad news for private blood testing company Theranos Inc., as San Francisco-based Partner Fund Management L.P. (“PFM”) launched a suit claiming that it was duped into making a $96.1 million investment in Theranos in February 2014. The complaint, filed in Delaware Court of Chancery, alleges common law fraud, securities fraud under California’s Corporations Code, and violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, among other things, against Theranos, its Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Holmes, and its former Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh Balwani.
On October 5, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in US v. Salman, a closely-watched insider trading case in which the Ninth Circuit held that, where the insider had a close personal relationship with the tippee, a remote tippee could be liable for insider trading even in the absence of a pecuniary benefit to the tipper. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit declined to extend the Second Circuit’s 2014 decision in US v. Newman, which held that insider trading requires proof of “a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” Early analysis of the arguments in Salman suggests that the Court will, as some have previously predicted , “split the baby” by leaving Salman’s conviction in place while also adopting a rule that would not affect the result in US v. Newman. Given the Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Salman rather than Newman, this result seems all the more likely.
Bassam Salman was convicted of insider trading after trading on information he received from Michael Kara, his brother in law, who in turn received that information from his brother, Maher Kara. Salman was aware that the information came from Maher, a Citigroup banker working on various health care deals and sharing information very openly with his brother. Michael also traded on the information and, although he told Maher that he was not trading, Maher suspected otherwise. Nevertheless, Maher never received any financial or other concrete benefit in the exchange, though there was evidence that he and his brother had a close relationship.
In Salman’s brief, he argued that his conviction was inconsistent with the Court’s seminal 1983 insider trading decision in SEC v. Dirks as interpreted by the Second Circuit in Newman: that insider trading requires proof of “at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” That is, to the extent that Maher offered material, non-public information to his brother in violation of his confidentiality obligations to his employer, that activity did not violate insider trading laws because Maher did not receive anything concrete in exchange.
From the outset of oral argument, several justices were noticeably skeptical of Salman’s arguments. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy questioned whether Salman’s conviction was just analogous to standard accomplice liability. Justice Kennedy observed that where the tippee does the trading and benefits thereby, as in Salman’s case, the tippee is really the recipient of the “gift” of the tip and by traditional analysis is an accomplice to the tipper’s wrongdoing.
In addition, several justices repeatedly went back to Dirks, in which the Court said that it might be possible to infer the required personal benefit “when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” As Justice Kennedy observed, Dirks suggested that “there’s a benefit in making a gift,” even if there is no pecuniary exchange. Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer both observed that Salman’s suggested approach would be a significant departure from most courts’ interpretations of the original Dirks holding. Justice Kagan noted that Dirks seemed to indicate that “it’s not only about when there’s a quid pro quo from the tippee to the tipper, but when the tipper makes a gift to the tippee, and in particular a relative or friend.” Justice Breyer noted outright that if the court embraced Salman’s approach, it was “really more likely to change the law that people have come to rely upon than it is to keep to it.”
The government, by contrast, had urged that there was no conflict among the reasoning upholding Salman’s conviction, SEC v. Dirks, or US v. Newman. The government urged that Michael and Maher had the kind of “meaningfully close personal relationship” that was not present in Newman, a case that involved several levels of remote tippees, none of whom had particularly close friendships much less a family relationship as in Salman. By this logic, the result in Salman was entirely consistent with both Dirks and Newman because the “personal relationship” was sufficiently different and satisfied the precedent established by Dirks.
When the government lawyer took the podium, the justices continued to pose challenging questions, but many justices signaled an apparent belief that the government’s position was more acceptable. Some justices did seem concerned that under the government’s proposed rule, non-relatives or non-friends might be swept into liability, but Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben seemed ready to concede some ground on that front. Toward the end of the argument, Justice Kagan asked whether the court could “separate out that strange, unusual, hardly-ever-prosecuted situation” of non-friends or non-relatives facing liability and Dreeben said he would be “fine with that.” As described above, his response may open the door for the Court to uphold Salman’s conviction while leaving Newman unchanged.
An important issue for companies and their executives that are the subject of an investigation by the federal government is whether, and how early, to cooperate.
On September 27, 2016, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer delivered remarks at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics Conference, where he laid out in some detail his views on the value of early cooperation with the federal government in financial cases, and the consequences for waiting. As the number 3 attorney in the Department of Justice who is charged with overseeing civil litigation, antitrust, and other large divisions, Baer’s words are significant, and are a further gloss on the so-called “Yates Memo”, which Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released last September, detailing DOJ’s guidance on individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing.
Speaking specifically about cases against banks and the fallout from protracted litigation involving residential mortgage-backed securities, Baer said those cases could have been resolved more quickly if only the financial institutions “had decided early to cooperate.” Consequently, “each [institution] paid a lot more than it would have if it had cooperated early on.” Recalling that many of these same institutions had nonetheless sought “significant cooperation credit,” Baer stated that DOJ “dismissed the arguments quickly because they so lacked merit.”
So how early is early enough, and how can your company get credit for cooperating? Baer elaborated on recent “internal” guidance he has provided to his attorneys in civil enforcement matters.
On September 12, 2016, the SEC announced that it had reached a settlement with Jun Ping Zhang (“Ping”), a former executive of a Chinese subsidiary of Harris Corporation (“Harris”), regarding alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). The settlement was unusual, in that the SEC declined to also bring charges against Harris, an international communications and information technology company.
In June 2014, the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy at the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an alert cautioning that investment newsletters are often “used to carry out schemes designed to deceive investors.” In particular, the SEC advised investors to be “highly suspicious” of newsletter “promises” of “high investment returns” and to contact the SEC to report potential securities fraud in newsletters and other promotional materials.
In what the SEC called “the first federal jury trial by the SEC against a municipality or one of its officers for violations of the federal securities laws,” a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida found the City of Miami and its former budget director, Michael Boudreaux, guilty of securities fraud for misrepresentations related to three municipal bond offerings in 2009. Both Defendants are expected to appeal the jury decision.
On August 31, 2016, the SEC caught a break when a Ninth Circuit panel reversed Judge Manuel L. Real’s bench trial verdict for defendants, former corporate officers of the now-defunct Basin Water, Inc., finding that the SEC was wrongfully denied its shot at a jury trial in a securities fraud action involving alleged false reporting of millions of dollars in unrealized revenue. The panel vacated the judgment and remanded for a jury trial, noting that the SEC had not consented to the defendants’ withdrawal of their jury demand, and in fact, consistently demonstrated its objection to a bench trial, preserving its objection all the way to the appellate court. READ MORE
On August 23, 2016, the SEC entered into a settlement that reflects a continuation of its recent trend of increasingly active pursuit of private equity firms, particularly for failing to disclose conflicts of interests and other material information to investors. The SEC entered into a $52.5 million settlement with four private equity fund advisers affiliated with Apollo Global Management LLC (collectively “Apollo”) arising out of insufficient disclosures and supervisory failures.
On August 17, 2016, jurors in a New York federal court convicted Sean Stewart on criminal charges of conspiracy, securities fraud, and tender offer fraud after more than five days of deliberation. Stewart, a former investment banker for JPMorgan and Perella Weinberg Partners, was charged with leaking confidential information about health care mergers to his father, Robert Stewart, on at least five occasions over the course of four years. The case provides a victory to Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, after a series of setbacks in the form of unfavorable decisions in the aftermath of the Second Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Newman, the repercussions of which have been covered extensively on this blog (see here, here). As the first conviction post-Newman, U.S. v. Stewart provides some insight into the kinds of facts that might support an insider trading charge in the Second Circuit going forward and is thus worthy of analysis.