Money, Gold and Judges: D.C. Circuit Holds SEC’s Conflict Minerals Rule Violates the First Amendment

On April 14, 2014, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held in National Assoc. of Mfg., et al. v. SEC that the required disclosures pursuant to the SEC’s Conflict Minerals Rule violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against compelled speech, throwing that rule into uncertainty and possibly opening the door to constitutional challenges to similar disclosure rules.

The Conflict Minerals Rule requires companies and foreign private issuers in the U.S. to disclose their use of “conflict minerals” both to the SEC and on their websites.  The Rule, which was adopted pursuant to Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act as a response to the Congo War, defines “conflict minerals” as gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten from the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) or an adjoining country, which directly or indirectly financed or benefited armed groups in those countries.  The deadline for satisfying the Rule, which became effective in November 2012, is May 31, 2014.  The National Association of Manufacturers, along with Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, challenged the Rule in the district court and then appealed to the Circuit Court. Read More

Out of Control: SEC Says Lack of Internal Controls Led to HP Paying More Than $108 Million to Settle FCPA Actions

On April 9, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Hewlett-Packard had agreed to pay more than $108 million to settle Foreign Corrupt Practices Act actions brought by the SEC and the Department of Justice.  These actions were based on HP’s subsidiaries’ alleged payments of more than $3.6 million to Russian, Polish, and Mexican government officials to obtain or maintain lucrative public contracts.  The settlement is important because it highlights the SEC’s and DOJ’s continued focus on companies’ internal controls, particularly in the FCPA arena.  It also shows that the SEC may be able to use lesser, non-fraud offenses in which the underlying conduct involves a fairly de minimis amount of money to police behavior and subject companies to significant financial consequences. Read More

Update on Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation Initiative

On March 10, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced that issuers and underwriters of municipal securities may voluntarily report materially inaccurate statements made in offering documents regarding prior continuing disclosure compliance through a program called the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation Initiative (the “MCDC Initiative”).

Orrick and BLX Group have issued a client alert with key information.

Honey, You Did What? SEC Charges Yet Another Spouse with Insider Trading

On March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains.  SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal).  The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows:  Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company.  In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters.  That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues.  Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove.  Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options.  In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31.  Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. Read More

I’m Ready for My Close-up: SEC Puts the Focus on Moviemaker Over Hostile Takeover Maneuvers

In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.

The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors.  In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell.  To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More

SEC Speaks, Cuban Tweets

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

Investors Get a Voice at the Regulator: SEC Names Its First Head of the Office of the Investor Advocate

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

The SEC Scores Another Admission: Scottrade Acknowledges That It Broke Recordkeeping Rules

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

For Whom the Whistle Tolls in 2014

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

Back to the Drawing Board: the SEC Loses Another Insider Trading Trial

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