Corporations facing federal securities suits can sometimes avoid liability by claiming that their forward-looking statements were so vague or indefinite that they could not have affected the company’s stock price and are therefore not material. Such statements are not actionable because courts consider them “puffing,” famously described by Judge Learned Hand nearly 100 years ago as “talk which no sensible man takes seriously.” Though we cannot know today what Judge Hand would think of the civil complaint recently filed by the SEC against several marijuana-company stock promoters, it’s safe to say that this isn’t the kind of ‘puffing’ he had in mind.
The defendants in the SEC civil action are all stock promoters, most of whom operate websites where they promote stocks, including microcap or so-called “penny” stocks. The SEC alleges that the defendants promoted shares in microcap companies related to the marijuana industry. For example, one of the companies, Hemp Inc., claims to be involved with medical marijuana. According to the SEC, three of the defendants bought and sold more than 40 million shares in Hemp Inc. in order to give the appearance that there was an active market in the company’s stock. In reality, the transactions allegedly consisted of wash trades and matched orders. A wash trade occurs when a security is traded between accounts, but with no actual change in beneficial ownership, while a matched order entails coordinating buy and sell orders to create the appearance of trading activity. As the defendants were allegedly generating trading activity, they were also allegedly promoting the stock on the Internet, touting “a REAL Possible Gain of OVER 2900%” in Hemp Inc. stock. Wow, that is high.
The SEC announced last week that it has obtained yet another admission of wrongdoing in connection with an agreement to settle an SEC enforcement action. This time, Peter A. Jenson, the former COO of Harbinger Capital Partners LLC, admitted that he aided and abetted Harbinger’s CEO, Philip Falcone, in obtaining a fraudulent loan from Harbinger. Jenson agreed to a $200,000 penalty along with a two-year suspension from practicing as an accountant on behalf of any SEC-regulated entity. The settlement awaits court approval.
The Jenson settlement is the latest in a series of settlements in which the SEC has obtained admissions of wrongdoing since announcing changes to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy in June 2013. Other examples include the March 2014 Lions Gate settlement, the February 2014 Scottrade settlement, and the August 2013 Falcone/Harbinger settlement that settled charges related to those Jenson settled last week. Read More
An otherwise mundane SEC announcement on July 30, 2014 of an enforcement action charging a public company CEO and CFO with accounting fraud and internal controls violations is significant because the SEC is proceeding against the non-settling individual (the CEO) in an administrative proceeding rather than in federal court. While not unprecedented, it has been, to date, exceedingly rare for the Commission to proceed against an unregulated entity or person administratively rather than in federal court. This decision reflects the Commission’s and Enforcement Division’s recently, but frequently, stated intent to bring more administrative proceedings that previously would have been brought in federal court, now that the Commission has expanded remedies under Dodd-Frank Act. The decision also raises significant due process issues.
The action itself charges Marc Sherman and Edward Cummings, CEO and former CFO, respectively, of QSGI Inc., a Florida-based computer equipment company, with violation of the antifraud and other provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. According to the Commission’s press release, Sherman and Cummings claimed they had disclosed all significant deficiencies in internal controls over financial reporting to the company’s independent auditors, but in fact did not disclose or direct anyone else to disclose ongoing inventory and accounts receivable issues or improper acceleration of recognition and the resulting falsification of QSGI’s books and records. The Commission also alleges that the executives signed SEC filings and Sarbanes-Oxley certifications that were rendered false and misleading due to the above issues. Cummings entered into an administrative settlement with the SEC, agreeing to a cease and desist order, a $23,000 civil penalty, a 5-year officer and director bar, and a 5-year bar on appearing or practicing before the Commission as an accountant. Sherman did not settle, and will instead litigate against the Division of Enforcement in an administrative proceeding. Read More
On July 16, 2014, a three-judge Second Circuit panel affirmed the dismissal of a securities class action against Deutsche Bank AG and several underwriters. The case was brought on behalf of investors who purchased approximately $5.5 billion in preferred Deutsche Bank shares in 2007, and who alleged that defendants misled them about the bank’s exposure to mortgage-backed securities and other risks in a registration statement filed in October of 2006. Plaintiffs alleged that the registration statement omitted details about Deutsche Bank’s business, including that the company failed to properly record provisions for RMBS, commercial real estate loans and exposure to monoline insurers.
The Partners of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP are pleased to announce the addition of Jason M. Halper as co-head of the firm’s Financial Institutions Litigation practice and a partner with the Securities Litigation and Regulatory Enforcement practice group in New York. Mr. Halper has over 20 years of experience representing financial institutions and other clients in high-stakes litigation and regulatory matters.
“Dark pools of liquidity” have recently become the focus of increased regulatory scrutiny, including a number of high-profile enforcement actions related to these alternative trading systems. This increased scrutiny follows on the heels of Michael Lewis’s popular book, “Flash Boys,” which introduced the public at large to dark pools through its allegations that high frequency trading firms use dark pools to game the system to the detriment of common investors. But what exactly are dark pools and do they have any redeeming qualities? This post provides a primer on the benefits and disadvantages of dark pools and why they matter.
In general, “dark pools of liquidity” are private alternative forums for trading securities that are typically used by large institutional investors and operate outside of traditional “lit” exchanges like NASDAQ and the NYSE. The key characteristic of dark pools is that, unlike “lit” exchanges, the identity and amount of individual trades are not revealed. The pools typically do not publicly display quotes or provide prices at which orders will be executed. Dark pools, and trading in dark pools, have proliferated in recent years due in part to the fragmentation of financial trading venues coupled with advancements in technology, including online trading. There are currently over 40 dark pools operating in the United States. Around half of these are owned by large broker-dealers and are operated for the benefit of their clients and for their own proprietary traders. According to the SEC, the percentage of total trading volume executed in dark venues has increased from approximately 25% in 2009 to approximately 35% today.
In a virtual course on how to bring—or not bring—an M&A strike suit, on June 30, a Delaware Chancery Court dismissed all shareholder claims against a merger target and its acquirer, ending nearly two years of litigation. Though the allegations are familiar in the strike-suit context, the 45-page opinion which this ~$100 million merger yielded is notable for its methodical tour of Delaware fiduciary-duty law, 102(b)(7) exculpatory provisions, and so-called Revlon duties. The roadmap opinion should be required reading for directors considering a merger.
Defendants Ramtron International and Cypress Semiconductor both work in the technology industry and the two began their courtship in 2011. Though shareholder-plaintiff Paul Dent couldn’t prevent the 2012 Ramtron-Cypress marriage, he continued to hold out for a better dowry, naming Ramtron’s board and Cypress in a suit alleging that Cypress aided and abetted Ramtron’s board in breaching its duty to shareholders, and seeking quasi-appraisal of his shares. Vice Chancellor Parsons disposed of these claims, taking the time to explain in unusual detail why the allegations utterly failed. Read More
Some things are better left unsaid. Especially, it seems, when they involve political intelligence shared by a congressional aide with a lobbyist linked to a political intelligence firm serving Wall Street traders.
The sharing of political-insider scoop has recently caused Congress to be subpoenaed for an insider trading investigation that will likely test recent legislation enacted to curb trading on non-public political information. The SEC subpoenaed Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.) for records, and the Justice Department subpoenaed Camp’s aide Brian Sutter, staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee’s healthcare subpanel, to testify before a federal grand jury. Read More
On June 27, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an important, unanimous decision upholding the assertion of attorney-client privilege for an internal investigation. The decision is especially significant because it (a) forcefully reversed a growing trend in the D.C. federal district courts that had narrowly applied the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations and (b) confirmed that communications made during the course of an internal investigation – e.g., interviews and interview notes and reports – are privileged whenever a primary purpose of the communication was to obtain legal advice.
The case involves a False Claims Act claim against Kellogg, Brown & Root (“KBR”), a former Halliburton subsidiary, regarding alleged fraud and other unlawful conduct violating the company’s code of business conduct. The plaintiff sought various materials relating to KBR’s investigation of the alleged conduct. Non-lawyers, acting at the direction of in-house lawyers, conducted the interviews.
On June 18, 2014, Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved the SEC’s no-admit, no-deny consent decrees in its insider trading case against CR Intrinsic Investors, LLC and affiliated entities. In approving the decrees, however, the court called on the SEC to take a “wait and see” approach in cases involving parallel criminal actions arising out of the same transactions alleged in its complaint.
The decision follows the much-anticipated opinion in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets (“Citigroup IV”), in which the Second Circuit vacated Judge Rakoff’s order refusing to approve a no-admit, no-deny consent decree between the SEC and Citigroup. The Second Circuit found that district courts are required to enter proposed SEC consent decrees if the decrees are “fair and reasonable,” and if the public interest is not disserved. A court must focus on whether the consent decree is procedurally proper, and cannot find that a proposed decree disserves the public based on its disagreement with the SEC’s use of discretionary no-admit, no-deny settlements.