2016 Could Be Peak SEC

2016 was a high-water mark for SEC enforcement activity; however, with the uncertainties associated with the new administration’s enforcement regime, we could be seeing a downturn going forward. According to a recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research, the SEC’s 2016 fiscal year (spanning October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016) saw the highest number of enforcement actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries since 2009, the year the Pollack Center and Cornerstone Research first began tracking information on such actions.  The 92 actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries last year is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years ago and represents the latest in a continuing upward trend of enforcement actions.  Also consistent with recent trends, the vast majority of these actions have been brought as administrative enforcement proceedings before SEC ALJs, rather than civil actions in federal court.

The SEC continues to focus most heavily on issuers’ reporting and disclosure obligations, which comprised more than a quarter of the enforcement actions initiated last year. The SEC has consistently emphasized issuer disclosures as an area of enforcement priority and its pattern of activity has, to date, backed that up.  Last year also brought enhanced focus on investment advisors and investment companies, with the SEC initiating more actions against those defendants in 2016 than in the previous three years combined.  Allegations of foreign corrupt practices and actions against companies making initial or secondary securities offerings also resulted in an increased rate of enforcement activity over prior periods.

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Changing the Game, Again: Supreme Court Could Limit SEC’s Authority to Seek Disgorgement

This week, the Supreme Court heard argument regarding whether the SEC’s actions to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”

The appeal stems from an SEC action alleging that between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated a staggering $35 million from two investment advisory companies that he owned and controlled, squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. While Kokesh moved into a gated mansion and bought himself a personal polo court (complete with a stable of 50 horses), he allegedly concealed his massive ill-gotten earnings by distributing false proxy statements to investors and filing dozens of false reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2009, the SEC brought a civil enforcement action against Kokesh in the District of New Mexico alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. The jury found violations of all three acts, and the district court ordered Kokesh to disgorge the $35 million he misappropriated (plus interest) and pay a $2.4 million civil monetary penalty for the “egregious” frauds he committed within the prior five years.  While the district court ordered disgorgement of all of Kokesh’s ill-gotten gains since 1995, the civil monetary penalty it imposed was constrained by the five-year statute of limitations found in 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which applies to claims throughout the U.S. Code for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” READ MORE

Understanding the New DOJ Compliance Guidance: Part Three – Policies & Procedures

This is the third in a series of posts where we will explore critical elements of a successful compliance program. In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in an anti-corruption compliance program, in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program.  The guidance offers companies a roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program.  In this series, we will explore recent and past guidance on key compliance topics, as well as key takeaways for companies of all sizes.

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Policies and Procedures are the cornerstone of a compliance program. While traditional sources of guidance, such as the DOJ and SEC FCPA Resource Guide and DPAs themselves, lay out the government’s fundamental expectations with regard to policies and procedures, the Fraud Section’s new guidance goes deeper, reflecting an approach that will assess not only the existence but also the design and integration of policies and procedures.

The most basic expectation with regard to policies and procedures is that companies will have a code of conduct prohibiting violations of the FCPA and the law’s foreign counterparts. Additionally, companies should have policies and procedures covering, among other things, gifts, travel & entertainment, expenses, political and charitable contributions, and payments to third parties.  Finally, traditional sources of guidance make clear that companies should also have a set of finance and accounting internal controls reasonably designed to ensure the maintenance of fair and accurate books and records.

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Understanding the New DOJ Compliance Guidance: Part 2 – Autonomy, Resources, and Staffing

This is the second in a series of posts where we will explore critical elements of a successful compliance program. In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in an anti-corruption compliance program, in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program.  The guidance offers companies a roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program.  In this series, we will explore recent and past guidance on key compliance topics, as well as key takeaways for companies of all sizes.

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It would be a mistake for companies to dismiss the Fraud Section’s recent guidance, which one high-level DOJ official suggested may be used more broadly by DOJ’s Criminal Division, as business as usual. It is not just more of the same.  The guidance does more than merely flesh-out existing direction; it operationalizes compliance.  Consider two examples from the guidance’s “Autonomy and Resources” section:

  • Empowerment – Have there been specific instances where compliance raised concerns or objections in the area in which the wrongdoing occurred?  How has the company responded to such compliance concerns?  Have there been specific transactions or deals that were stopped, modified, or more closely examined as a result of compliance concerns?
  • Compliance Role – Was compliance involved in training and decisions relevant to the misconduct?  Did the compliance or relevant control functions (e.g., Legal, Finance, or Audit) ever raise a concern in the area where the misconduct occurred?

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Hold the Phone: SEC Takes One Last Stand Before the Tenth Circuit regarding the Constitutionality of the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges

Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC.  In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed.  The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function.  First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs.  For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas.  ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court.  In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue.  Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.

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Understanding the New DOJ Compliance Guidance: Part 1 – Tone at the Top

This is the first in a series of posts where we will explore critical elements of a successful compliance program. In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in an anti-corruption compliance program, in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program.  The guidance offers companies a roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program.  In this series, we will explore recent and past guidance on key compliance topics, as well as key takeaways for companies of all sizes.

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A commitment from high-level management is typically the first compliance component discussed in government guidance and Deferred Prosecution Agreements. Commonly referred to as “Tone at the Top,” this critical concept has previously been described in vague, generic ways.  See, for example, this excerpt from Attachment C of DOJ’s recent DPA with Embraer S.A., which is identical to language in many other agreements:

“The Company will ensure that its directors and senior management provide strong, explicit, and visible support and commitment to its corporate policy against violations of the anti-corruption laws and its compliance code.”

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Circuit Split on Whistleblower Protections Widens

On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc. that further widened a circuit split on the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to whistleblowers who claim retaliation after reporting internally or instead only to those who report information to the SEC.  Following the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Berman v. [email protected] LLC, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers.  By contrast, the Fifth Circuit considered this issue in its 2013 decision in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC and found that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously protect only those whistleblowers who report directly to the SEC.

Plaintiff Paul Somers alleged that Digital Realty Trust fired him after he made several reports to senior management regarding possible securities law violations. Somers only reported these possible violations internally at the company, and not to the SEC.  After his employment was terminated, Somers sued Digital Realty, alleging violations of state and federal securities laws, including violations of the whistleblower protections under Dodd-Frank.  Digital Realty moved to dismiss on the ground that Somers was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank.  The district court denied the motion, deferring to the SEC’s interpretation that internal reporters are also protected from retaliation under Dodd-Frank.

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The Call for a Statutory Insider Trading Law

Judge Jed S. Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) recently made headlines after urging lawyers to draft and advocate for a more straightforward insider trading statute to replace judicially-created insider trading law. During his keynote speech at the New York City Bar’s annual Securities Litigation & Enforcement Institute, Judge Rakoff explained that the law has become overly-complicated since courts were forced to define insider trading by shoehorning the concept into the fraud provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. As a result, increasingly suspect theories have been developed to address potential insider trading in an expanding variety of scenarios.

In promoting a statutory solution for insider trading law, Judge Rakoff pointed to the Europe Union (“EU”) as an example. He explained that the EU defined insider trading by statute in simple and broad terms, and avoided relying on the framework of fraud.  Considering Judge Rakoff’s influence and expertise in securities law, inquiry into the EU’s approach to insider trading is warranted.

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With New Guidance, DOJ Signals What Companies Should Expect to Answer During FCPA Inquiries

Without fanfare or forewarning, the US Department of Justice released new anti-corruption compliance guidance on February 8, 2017. The eight page document provides rare insight into the government’s evaluation of corporate compliance programs.  Companies designing compliance programs, conducting internal investigations, or facing a bribery or books and records-related government inquiry can now look to the appropriately titled “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” for a hint at the types of questions they should be prepared to answer.

As emphasized in the Department of Justice and Security and Exchange Commission’s November 2012 FCPA Resource guide, DOJ’s recent guidance again reinforces that a compliance program should be individualized to a company’s risk profile, and so should the government’s evaluation of the program.  The guidance is clearly not a checklist that applies to all.  It does, however, provide more detail about the way a company should evaluate its own program.  Companies can leverage the information to design more robust compliance programs and better respond to potential violations. READ MORE

SEC Reportedly Centralizing Authority to Issue Formal Investigation Orders

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the acting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has centralized authority to issue formal orders of investigation – a critical authority that triggers the ability of SEC staff attorneys to issue subpoenas.  The move, which was not publicized by the SEC, would curb existing powers of the Commission’s enforcement staff.

Since 2009, the power to issue formal orders of investigation had been “sub-delegated” to about 20 senior attorneys within the SEC’s Enforcement Division. However, according to the Journal report, acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar ordered the authority to be centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement. READ MORE