Last week, several securities industry groups filed critical responses to the SEC’s plan for an audit trail. While most groups that commented on the SEC’s proposed regulation supported implementing the proposal, several had concerns regarding the cost for investors and firms, and the protection of private data.
In a move that will make Securities and Exchange Commission administrative proceedings look more like civil litigation in federal court, on July 13, 2016, the SEC announced that it had adopted amendments to its rules of practice. These rules appear similar to those the Commission proposed last September. For critics of the amendments, they may not go far enough, but the expanded discovery and clarifications regarding dispositive motion practice may address some of the issues previously raised regarding the Commission’s perceived home-court advantage.
On June 27, 2016, SEC Administrative Law Judge Carol Fox Foelak dismissed the Division of Enforcement’s charges against IRA custodian Equity Trust Company in connection with the company’s processing of investments marketed by two convicted fraudsters. Judge Foelak’s decision—a complete defense victory for Equity Trust—shows that while the Division of Enforcement may still win most of its cases in administrative proceedings, it doesn’t win them all.
On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date. Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013. The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone. These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions. As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”
Last week, the SEC’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) released its semiannual report to Congress, which details the OIG’s independent and objective audits, evaluations, investigations and other reviews of the SEC’s programs and operations in order to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse in SEC programs and operations, and other vulnerabilities the SEC faces. In the most recent report, the OIG was critical of various programs, but most notably: (1) recommended a new framework to increase the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations coverage of registered investment advisors, and (2) informed Congress it was conducting a further evaluation on the SEC’s enforcement investigations to ensure that investigations are coordinated internally and across SEC divisions and offices.
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.