The Potential Declawing of the SEC: The Financial CHOICE Act

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC.  Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.

Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:

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From Greyball to Snowball: Uber’s Latest Travails, and How Multiple Investigations of Misconduct May Imperil the Attorney-Client Privilege

It emerged on May 5 that the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Uber’s use of software called “Greyball” that concealed the ride-sharing company’s operations from regulators in cities and countries that did not permit Uber’s services.  Since then, the Portland City Council has voted to subpoena documents concerning the program, and lawmakers in Philadelphia and Austin have said they are cooperating with DOJ investigation. Uber allegedly deployed Greyball not only in the United States (including in Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas), but also in Australia, Paris, China, and South Korea.

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What to Watch for From the New SEC Chairman

Last Thursday, Jay Clayton was officially sworn in as the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  As the new Chairman takes office, here are a few things we’re keeping an eye on:

Will Chairman Clayton take a position on the recently introduced bipartisan bill that would increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions?  The “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in enforcement actions to as much as $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  The current maximum civil monetary penalties are $181,071 and $905,353 per violation for individuals and entities, respectively.

Will the new Chairman preserve the directive reportedly issued by former Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar to re-centralize authority to issue formal orders of investigation?  In 2009, the SEC adopted a rule that delegated authority to issue formal orders initiating investigations to the Director of Enforcement, who then “sub-delegated” it to regional and associate directors and unit chiefs within the Enforcement Division.  In February, Piwowar reportedly revoked the “sub-delegated” authority, ordering it re-centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement.

Will enforcement actions against public companies increase or decrease after hitting their highest level since 2009 last year?  A recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research found that the 92 actions the SEC brought against public companies and their subsidiaries in 2016 is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years prior. READ MORE

Congress May Significantly Increase SEC Civil Penalties Up To $10 Million Per Violation

On March 30, 2017, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill called “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” (the “SEC Penalties Act”) to “crack down on Wall Street fraud” that would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions up to $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  Currently, the maximum civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions are $181,071 per violation for individuals and $905,353 per violation for entities.[1]

The SEC Penalties Act raises the maximum penalties under all three penalty tiers, would tie penalties to the scope of harm and associated investor losses, triple the maximum penalty caps under each tier for recidivists who have been held criminally or civilly liable for securities fraud within the preceding five years, and provide the SEC with authority to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC administrative actions (currently disgorgement is only available in federal district court actions). The legislation would not alter the current three-tier penalty structure or the standards for establishing a penalty under each tier, and does not define how administrative law judges and federal district courts should interpret the “each act or omission” language in the penalty statutes.[2]

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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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