A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion. In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed. The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties. Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More
The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission addressed the public on February 21-22 at the annual SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C. The presentations covered an array of topics, but common themes included the Commission’s ongoing effort to carry out the rulemaking agenda set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, its role as an enforcement body post-financial crisis, its increasing utilization of technology, and its renewed focus on the conduct of gatekeepers. In a surprise appearance, Dallas Mavericks owner and former insider trading defendant Mark Cuban attended the first day of the conference. During his time at the conference, Mr. Cuban shared his thoughts on a number of the presentations via his Twitter account.
From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following: Read More
Though investors might have assumed that the entire Securities and Exchange Commission was their advocate to begin with, on February 12th the agency announced that it had hired Rick Fleming to be its very first Investor Advocate in the recently created Office of the Investor Advocate (“OIA”).
In hiring Fleming, the SEC is implementing Title IX of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which amended the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by creating, among other things, an Investor Advisory Committee, the OIA, and an ombudsman to be appointed by the Investor Advocate. Fleming comes to the SEC from his most recent job as Deputy General Counsel at the North American Securities Administrators Association where he advocated for state securities regulators in matters before Congress and the SEC. Fleming previously spent several years in Kansas state government, including some fifteen years in the state’s Office of the Securities Commissioner. Read More
Last week, Scottrade Inc. became the latest entity to admit wrongdoing in connection with settling SEC charges. In a January 29, 2014 administrative order, the brokerage firm not only agreed to a $2.5 million penalty, but also admitted that it violated federal securities laws when it failed to provide the SEC with complete and accurate “ blue sheet” trading data. This settlement marks the fourth such admission since the Commission’s June 2013 modification to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy.
Most civil law enforcement agencies – including the SEC – generally do not require entities or individuals to admit or deny wrongdoing in order to reach a settlement. The SEC regularly utilizes this “no admit/no deny” policy, finding it an effective tool to facilitate settlements. In June 2013, however, the Commission announced a revision to this longstanding policy, indicating that it would require public admissions of wrongdoing in selected cases, including those involving “egregious” fraud or intentional misconduct, as well as those involving significant investor impact or that are otherwise highly visible. Since then, the Commission has obtained admissions in three previous settlements. Read More
Momentum for the SEC’s Dodd Frank whistleblower program is growing, and 2014 can be expected to bring continued expansion of the program and the number and types of whistleblower actions initiated by the SEC. The SEC’s annual report to Congress reported that 3,238 whistleblower tips were received in 2013, up almost 10% from 2012, and awards to whistleblowers who provide information to the SEC are increasing as more substantive tips are received.
An investigation by the SEC into a whistleblower tip can take several years to culminate in an enforcement action, so the last year likely saw just the beginning of a wave of enforcement actions. Despite the fact that over 6,000 tips have been received through 2013, the SEC has issued only six separate awards to tipsters. Those awards have ranged from $125,000 to a record $14 million, representing 10 to 30 percent of the overall funds recovered by the SEC in these whistleblower cases. Read More
On January 7, 2014 the SEC lost an insider trading bench trial before Judge William Duffey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. In a thorough opinion, Judge Duffey found the SEC’s case to be entirely circumstantial, founded on no more than a pattern of trades that were made in close proximity to communications between the purported tipper and tippee. This case shows how difficult insider trading claims are to prove, especially without wire taps, and may give the Commission pause in bringing cases to trial that rest on such circumstantial evidence.
On trial was Larry Schvacho, a retiree who spent much of his free time investing. The SEC alleged Schvacho had misappropriated material, nonpublic information from Larry Enterline, a long time friend, who was then CEO and director of Comsys IT. Although Schvacho had traded in Comsys stock for many years, the SEC’s case focused on trades Schvacho made during the run-up to an acquisition of Comsys by Manpower in early 2010. As the SEC established at trial, Schvacho and Enterline had repeatedly communicated and socialized together during the period, and there were numerous phone calls, text messages, car rides, sailing trips, and dinners where Enterline could have given Schvacho information about the acquisition. When news of the acquisition was eventually made public to the market, Schvacho made over $500,000 on his trades. Read More
On Tuesday, December 10, five federal regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, jointly released the long awaited and hotly contested “Final Rules Implementing the Volcker Rule.” The Rules and supplement, together more than 900 pages long, are already generating comment and controversy for their complexity and severity—or lack thereof, depending on who you ask. The Rules become effective on April 1, 2014 with final conformance expected by July 21, 2015.
A Product of Hard Times
Paul Volcker, an economist, former Federal Reserve Chairman and former chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, initially proposed a (seemingly) simple rule restricting certain risk-taking activity by American banks in a 3-page letter to President Obama in 2009. Speculative activity, for example, proprietary trading, was believed to have contributed to the “too big to fail” position that the nation’s largest banks found themselves in at the height of the Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009. The Volcker rule thus proposed prohibiting banks from engaging in short-term proprietary trading on their own account. It also proposed limiting the relationships that banks could have with hedge funds and other private equity entities. Not long after its proposal, the rule was made into law in Section 619 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, to take effect upon the issuance of implementing regulations. Read More
The SEC this year has demonstrated its willingness to incentivize whistleblowers and companies to share information about misconduct and assist with the SEC’s investigations. To that end, the SEC issued its first Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with an individual on November 12, 2013. A DPA is an agreement whereby the SEC refrains from prosecuting cooperators for their own violations if they comply with certain undertakings.
This first DPA is with Scott Herckis, a former Fund Administrator for Connecticut-based hedge fund Happelwhite Fund LP. In September 2012 Herckis resigned and contacted government officials regarding the misappropriation by the fund’s founder and manager, Berton Hochfeld, of $1.5 million in hedge fund proceeds. Herckis further reported that Hochfeld had overstated the fund’s performance to investors. Herckis’s cooperation with the SEC, including producing voluminous documents and helping the SEC staff understand how Hochfeld was able to perpetrate the fraud, led the SEC to file an emergency action and freeze $6 million of Hochfeld’s and the fund’s assets. Those frozen assets will be distributed to the fund’s investors. Read More
Following a defense verdict in the insider trading case brought against him by the SEC, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has not been sitting on the bench—but rather using his blog to stay on the offensive. Since the October 16, 2013 verdict, Cuban continues to post about the case on his blog—including, just a few days ago, blogging about when his own blog became the focus of the trial. According to his October 26 post, an SEC attorney asked him during trial if everything he posted on his blog was true information, to which he replied that it was meant more “to communicate a point” and stimulate discussion. Following up, the SEC attorney asked: “If you post on your blog that you think the Lakers are going to stink in 2013 . . . you’re not telling this jury that that’s an opinion you don’t honestly hold, right?” Cuban posted that the courtroom “cracked up” when he replied “This year?”, before going on to answer: “Well, no. In 2004, I wouldn’t say it. They had Shaq, they had Kobe, they actually went to the finals . . . To answer your question, if I said in 2004 that they stink, I didn’t believe it.” In an earlier blog entry, Cuban also poked fun at the former Head of Enforcement—posting about internal emails, disclosed earlier in the case, in which SEC attorneys commented on photos of Cuban. Read More
In a recent speech to the Securities Enforcement Forum, SEC Chair Mary Jo White fleshed out the Commission’s plan to pursue all violations of federal securities laws, “not just the biggest frauds.” She also addressed the looming question of whether this approach makes the best use of the agency’s limited resources.
Chair White compared the SEC’s strategy of pursuing all forms of wrongdoing, no matter how big or small, to the “broken window” theory of policing, which was largely credited for reducing crime in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to the “broken window” theory, a broken window which remains unfixed is a “signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” On the other hand, a broken window which is fixed indicates that “disorder will not be tolerated.” Chair White postulated that the same theory applies to the US securities markets: minor violations that go ignored may lead to larger violations, and may foster a culture where securities laws are treated as “toothless guidelines.” Characterizing the SEC as the investors’ “cop,” she declared that the SEC needs to be a “strong cop on the beat,” understanding that even the smallest securities violations have victims. Read More