In a move evidencing the SEC’s continued commitment to its whistleblower program, the Commission announced on Friday that it has awarded a whistleblower over $3.5 million for providing information that did not lead to a new investigation, but rather only served to bolster an ongoing investigation. This decision came after the SEC’s Claims Review Staff preliminarily determined that the SEC should deny the whistleblower claim because the information provided by the individual did not appear to “cause Enforcement staff to open the investigation or to inquire into different conduct, nor . . . to have significantly contributed to the success” of the action. But after reviewing the whistleblower’s written response for reconsideration, in addition to factual information from staff in the Division of Enforcement, the Commission changed course, determining that the information indeed “significantly contributed” to the success of the SEC’s action, and approving the award.
In a memorandum released on April 18, 2016, the private blood-testing company Theranos – once valued at over $9 billion – announced that it is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, among other government agencies. The memorandum did not disclose the focus of the government investigations. Theranos’ announcement about the investigations comes on the heels of a series of October 2015 Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) articles critical of the accuracy of the company’s blood-testing methods. The government investigations into Theranos are not surprising, particularly in light of recent remarks by SEC Chair Mary Jo White (“White”) at a March 31, 2016 address at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, where White revealed the SEC’s focus on Silicon Valley’s privately held unicorns – private start-up companies with valuations exceeding $1 billion.
We have previously written about how, over the past few years, the SEC and other regulatory agencies have devoted substantial resources to investigations regarding allegations that public companies have inadequate internal controls and/or a system for reporting those controls. See here, here and here. That effort shows no signs of waning. As recently as March 23, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement with a multi-national company due in part to the internal controls failures at two foreign subsidiaries. On March 10, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against Magnum Hunter Resources Corporation in connection with alleged internal control failures. And, on February 17, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against a biopesticide company, Marrone Bio Innovations, based on the company having reported misstated financial results caused in part by internal control failures.
In a heavily redacted decision issued on April 5, 2016, the SEC approved the claim of one whistleblower and denied the claim of another for providing information related to an unidentified enforcement action. The SEC awarded $275,000 to the primary claimant (Claimant 1) but offset that amount by the monetary obligations due related to a separate Final Judgment. Although the April 5 order was heavily redacted, the publicly available information confirms that the $275,000 award was based on a percentage of the monetary sanctions from both the SEC case and a related criminal action. This is the first time an SEC order has required a tipster to spend whistleblower proceeds to settle a court-ordered debt.
Speaking last week at the SEC’s and Rock Center’s Silicon Valley Initiative at Stanford Law School, SEC Chair Mary Jo White cautioned Silicon Valley’s start-up companies regarding their potential lack of internal controls. In particular, she warned that unicorns—nonpublic start-up companies valued north of one billion dollars—may warrant special scrutiny into whether their corporate governance and investor disclosures are keeping pace with their growing valuations. Ms. White repeatedly warned that the prestige of obtaining “unicorn” status may drive companies to inflate their valuations.
The ripple effects of the Second Circuit’s landmark insider trading decision, United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014), were felt again last week. On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or the “Commission”) ruled that Former Neuberger Berman Analyst Sandeep “Sandy” Goyal, whom the SEC previously barred from the securities industry after he pled guilty to insider trading, could participate in the industry again. The SEC’s rare decision to lift an administrative bar order resulted from Newman, (previously discussed at length here), which led to Goyal’s criminal conviction being vacated and the civil claims against him being dropped by the SEC. Newman raised the bar for what prosecutors in tipper/tippee insider trading cases have to show by holding that tipper/tippee liability requires the tipper to receive a “personal benefit” amounting to a quid pro quo or pecuniary benefit in exchange for the tip and the tippee to know of that benefit. Despite the SEC’s decision to drop the administrative bar against Goyal in light of Newman, as recently as SEC Speaks on February 19-20, 2016, SEC Deputy of Enforcement Stephanie Avakian affirmed that insider trading cases “continue to be a priority” for the Commission. Nonetheless, the ripple effects of Newman continue to call the government’s ability to successfully bring both criminal and civil cases into question.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released findings from its extensive investigation into allegations of potential bias against respondents in SEC administrative proceedings. The OIG report comes at a time when the fairness of the SEC’s in-house administrative forum is under scrutiny from both inside and outside of the agency.
After the repeated challenges to the SEC’s in-house courts as previously reported, Mark Cuban joined the debate by filing an amicus curiae brief in support of petitioners Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. and Raymond J. Lucia (collectively “Lucia”) in Lucia v. SEC. Cuban, describing himself as a “first-hand witness to and victim of SEC overreach” in a 2013 insider trading case brought against him in an SEC court, argued that the D.C. Circuit should grant the petitioners’ appeal because SEC in-house judges are unconstitutionally appointed.
On January 11, 2016, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year . The announcement included several new areas of focus, including liquidity controls, public pension advisers, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), product promotion, and variable annuities. Hedge fund and mutual fund managers, private equity firms, and broker-dealers – in particular those that deal with retirement investments – would be wise to take note of these new areas of interest. As in past years, enforcement actions in these areas are likely to follow.
On the eve of the much anticipated release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the SEC approved Overstock Inc.’s plan to issue digital shares. The online retailer plans to issue company stock via bitcoin blockchain–an enormous database running across a global network of independent computers that tracks the exchange of money. Just as the original Star Wars movies released in the late 1970s and early 1980s signaled a monumental shift in special effects in film, Overstock’s plan to issue digital shares may herald a significant shift in the way securities are distributed and traded in the future.