FINRA Enforcement Head Explains Why Enforcement “Isn’t Rocket Science”

In a speech at the SIFMA AML Conference last week, FINRA Head of Enforcement Susan Schroeder openly explained the “straightforward framework” that Enforcement uses when making decisions about enforcement actions. The context for Schroeder’s speech was FINRA’s merger of two separate enforcement departments, resulting from FINRA head Robert Cook’s “listening tour” and FINRA’s recent self-evaluation, but Schroeder’s explanation appeared to be more of a response to broader industry complaints about FINRA Enforcement’s lack of consistency and transparency in its charging and sanctions decisions.

If that was Schroeder’s mission, she was successful. She identified the goals of enforcement actions, and justified FINRA’s use of its enforcement tool based upon harms to investors and perceived market risks. Overarching Schroeder’s speech was the principle that firms should know “what to expect from their regulator” so they know “how to shape their behavior in order to comply with the rules.” In this spirit of transparency, Schroeder identified the various principles or factors that FINRA Enforcement considers when evaluating enforcement actions and sanctions. Those principles should provide a vocabulary for firms and their counsel to assess and question FINRA’s enforcement activities.

Here are the principles in Schroeder’s own words:

Is this enforcement action appropriate? According to Schroeder, enforcement actions should be brought to “fix something that is broken or to prevent future misconduct, either by the same respondent or by another individual or firm.” Enforcement is not the only means FINRA has to fix something, and it is not always the “right tool” to use. To determine whether enforcement action is the appropriate regulatory response, FINRA will ask: READ MORE

SEC’s OCIE Announces 2018 Areas of Focus

On February 7, 2018 the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 National Exam Priorities. The priorities, formulated with input from the Chairman, Commissioners, SEC Staff and fellow regulators, are mostly unchanged from years past (New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus, Orrick.com). However, the publication itself is presented in a more formal wrapper that begins with a lengthy message from OCIE’s leadership team describing the Office’s role and guiding principles, including that they are risk-based, data-driven and transparent, and that they embrace innovation and new technology.

2018 Priorities

OCIE’s principal 2018 priority, not surprisingly, appears to be the protection of retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE specifically stated that it will focus on the disclosure of investment fees and other compensation received by financial professionals; electronic investment advisors – sometimes known as “robo-advisors”; wrap fee programs in which investors are charged a single fee for bundled services; and never-before-examined investment advisors. As to the latter, OCIE indicated that in the most recent fiscal year, it examined approximately 15 percent of all investment advisors, up from 8 percent five years before. It remains to be seen whether that increasing trend will continue.

Noting that the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering (ICO) markets “present a number of risks for retail investors,” OCIE included them as a priority for the first time. Examiners will focus on whether financial professionals maintain adequate controls and safeguards over the assets, as well the disclosure of investment risks.

Other 2018 priorities are compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure; cybersecurity protections, which OCIE states are critical to the operation of our markets; and anti-money laundering programs. In addition, OCIE has prioritized its examinations of FINRA and MSRB to ensure that those entities continue to operate effectively as self-regulatory organizations subject to the SEC’s oversight. READ MORE

No Direct Cause, No Restitution

A recent federal appellate decision shows there are limits to the ability of a regulator to claim monetary sanctions for statutory violations. Last week the 11th Circuit held that investors whose losses were solely associated with registration violations by their fraudster traders were not entitled to a restitution award – because such losses had not been proximately caused by the registration violations.

In an enforcement action brought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the 11th Circuit affirmed a Florida district court’s findings that two companies and their CEO committed fraud by falsely representing to some investors that they had purchased physical metals on their behalf (when they had actually purchased futures), and violated the registration requirements of the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) by trading in futures without registering as futures commission merchants. The district court had awarded restitution for losses arising from both of these violations. While the 11th Circuit upheld the restitution award of approximately $1.5 million based on the fraudulent misrepresentation, it vacated the award of approximately $560,000 based on the failure to register, holding that this violation did not proximately cause the investors’ losses. READ MORE

Financial Derivatives Intermediaries Who Trade Virtual Currencies Face the NFA’s Enhanced Reporting Requirements

Derivatives regulators continue to take actions that pull virtual currencies – also known as digital currency or cryptocurrency, the best known of which is bitcoin – into their regulatory schemes. In December, the National Futures Association (NFA), the futures industry’s self-regulatory organization, issued three Notices to Members that expand the notification and reporting requirements for futures commission merchants (FCMs), introducing brokers (IBs), commodity pool operators (CPOs) and commodity trading advisers (CTAs) trading in virtual currencies and related derivatives. In issuing these directives, the NFA cited the fact that a number of CFTC-regulated trading venues were in the process of offering derivatives on virtual currency products and stated that it was expanding the notification and reporting requirements due to the volatility in the underlying virtual currency markets.

Specifically, the NFA’s notices:

  • direct each FCM for which NFA is the DSRO to immediately notify NFA if the firm decides to offer its customers or non-customers the ability to trade any virtual currency futures product. NFA also requires each FCM to report on its daily segregation reports the number of customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), the number of non-customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), and the gross open virtual currency futures positions (i.e. total open long positions, total open short positions);
  • direct each IB to immediately notify NFA if it solicits or accepts any orders in virtual currency derivatives. NFA also requires each IB that solicits or accepts orders for one or more virtual currency derivatives to notify NFA by amending its annual questionnaire, by answering this question: Does your firm solicit or accept orders involving a virtual currency derivative (e.g. a bitcoin future, option or swap)? In addition, starting with the current quarter, IBs that solicit or accept orders for virtual currency derivatives will also be required to report the number of accounts they introduced that executed one or more trades in a virtual currency derivative during each calendar quarter;
  • direct each CPO and CTA to immediately notify NFA if it executes a transaction involving any virtual currency (such as bitcoin) or virtual currency derivative (such as a bitcoin future, options or swap) on behalf of a pool or managed account. NFA’s Notice requires that CPOs and CTAs provide such notice by amending their annual questionnaire, to which NFA added questions that inquired, for CPOs, whether the firm operates a pool that has executed a transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative and, for CTAs, whether the firm offers a trading program for managed account clients that have transacted in a virtual currency, or managed an account that transacted in a virtual currency derivative. In addition, beginning with the current quarter, the NFA is requiring CPOs and CTAs to report on a quarterly basis the number of their pools or managed accounts that executed at least one transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative.

READ MORE

New Delaware Supreme Court Ruling on Excess Director Compensation: A Return to Formula Plans?

On December 13, 2017, in Re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation (“Bancorp”), the Supreme Court of Delaware held that when stockholders have approved an equity incentive plan that gives the directors discretion to grant themselves awards within a shareholder approved plan limit, and a stockholder properly alleges that the directors improperly exercised that discretion, then the stockholder ratification defense is unavailable to dismiss the suit, and the directors will be required to prove the entire fairness of the awards to the corporation.  The Bancorp case involved a generous shareholder approved plan limit and upholds the adage that bad facts make bad law.

In Bancorp, the company’s stockholders approved an equity plan for employees and directors that gave Bancorp Inc.’s board of directors discretion to allocate up to 30% of all option or restricted stock shares available under the plan as awards to themselves. After stockholders approved the equity plan, the board approved grants to themselves of just under half of the stock options available to the directors and nearly thirty percent of the shares available to the directors as restricted stock awards.

Each director’s grant far surpassed the median pay at similarly sized companies and the median pay at much larger companies. The awards were also over twenty-three times more than the median award granted to other companies’ non-employee directors after mutual-to-stock conversions. The court determined that the plaintiffs alleged facts that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by awarding excessive equity awards to themselves under the equity plan and that a stockholder ratification defense was not available for a motion to dismiss. READ MORE

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense: FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy Cements Importance of Compliance Programs

The Department’s revised FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy—which will be incorporated into the United States Attorneys’ Manual—builds on and makes permanent the Department’s 2016 FCPA Pilot Program. While much of the commentary on the revised policy has focused on the potential benefits of voluntary self-disclosure and cooperation after an issue arises, the policy also provides updated guidance to all companies on the hallmarks of an effective compliance and ethics program – an important and practical takeaway for compliance officers, in-house counsel, boards and executives.

DOJ’s Revised FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy Formalizes the 2016 FCPA Pilot Program

The Pilot Program set out to evaluate if the Department could motivate companies to voluntarily self-disclose FCPA-related misconduct, fully cooperate with the Fraud Section, and, where appropriate, remediate flaws in controls and compliance programs. One of the key components of the Pilot Program was the potential for substantial mitigation—including declination of prosecution in certain cases and, where warranted, a credit of up to a 50 percent reduction below the low end of the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ fine range for companies that voluntarily self-disclose misconduct and cooperate and remediate to the Department’s satisfaction. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein expressed his satisfaction with the program’s results, which he heralded as a step forward in fighting corporate crime. He also noted that during the pilot period, the DOJ saw 30 voluntary disclosures to the FCPA Unit—compared to 18 during the previous 18‑month period.

In announcing the new formalized Policy, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein emphasized that the Department will continue to strongly encourage voluntary disclosures and set forth what he considers to be the revised Policy’s three key features: READ MORE

The SEC Enforcement Division 2017 Annual Report: Continued Focus on Individual Wrongdoers and Enhanced Protections for the “Main Street” Investor

Almost a year into the new administration, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement released its annual report last week, providing a recap of the SEC’s enforcement results over the past 12 months, as well as some insight into its direction for the coming year. Overall, the report suggests that the SEC will increase its focus on addressing harm to “Main Street” investors and that pursuing individuals will continue to be the rule, not the exception.

During fiscal year 2017, the SEC pursued 754 enforcement actions, 446 of which were “stand-alone” actions (as opposed to “follow-on” actions which seek to bar executives from practicing before the Commission or to deregister public companies). This represents a drop from the prior year in which the SEC pursued 784 enforcement actions, 464 of which were stand-alone actions. The bulk of the Division’s 446 stand-alone actions in FY 2017 focused on issuer advisory issues, issuer reporting, auditing and accounting, securities offerings, and insider trading—all areas that saw a relatively similar number of cases in FY 2016. Actions involving public finance abuse represented the only significant decrease in the number of cases versus the prior year. In FY 2016, the SEC brought nearly 100 public finance abuse actions compared to fewer than 20 in FY 2017. READ MORE

FCPA Violators Beware—SEC to Double Down on Enforcement

The SEC has signaled plans to double down on its FCPA enforcement efforts and speed up FCPA investigations. On November 9, 2017, Steven Peikin, Co-Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, delivered a speech at New York University School of Law to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the FCPA and the 20th anniversary of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development Anti-Bribery Convention. In his speech, Peikin stressed the importance of the FCPA to the Commission’s enforcement mission and noted that the Commission will continue its commitment to FCPA enforcement. Pointing out that the Commission has brought 106 FCPA-related actions against individuals and corporations since forming its designated FCPA Unit in 2010, Peikin highlighted the Commission’s success in fostering a more predictable and uniform approach to FCPA enforcement and domestic and international partnerships in fighting corruption.

Peikin stressed the importance of collaborating with international colleagues in the fight to “eradicate[e] corruption and bribery” and pointed to recent global settlements, including the settlement with Telia (reported here), as examples of successful cross-border coordination and cooperation. Citing deterrence and investigation efficiencies as key benefits of global coordination, Peikin noted that he expects “the trend of the Enforcement Division working closely with foreign law enforcement and regulators in anti-bribery actions to continue its upward trajectory in the coming years.” READ MORE

Sudan Now Open for Business, but Risks Remain

On October 12, 2017, the United States made permanent its lifting of a longtime general embargo on trade and investment with Sudan. As a result, U.S. individuals and companies are now generally free to engage in transactions involving Sudan, the Government of Sudan or many formerly sanctioned Sudanese persons without a license from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). While this presents opportunities for new business in Sudan, any U.S. person considering business relating to Sudan should be aware of the legal restrictions that remain in place and the risks associated with such an undertaking.

Background

For almost two decades, Executive Orders (EOs) by Presidents Bill Clinton (EO 13067) and George W. Bush (EO 13412), along with the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations (SSR), have generally prevented U.S. persons from conducting transactions involving the Government of Sudan or certain sanctioned Sudanese persons, importing goods or services of Sudanese origin, exporting any goods or services to Sudan, or performing any contract “in support of an industrial, commercial, public utility, or governmental project in Sudan,” among other things. This trade and investment embargo was prompted by findings that the Government of Sudan was engaged in support for international terrorism, efforts to destabilize its neighboring countries, and myriad human rights violations.

On January 13, 2017, President Obama issued EO 13761, which observed that the dangerous and unstable situation in Sudan that had prompted sanctions by his predecessors “has been altered by Sudan’s positive actions over the past 6 months.” In particular, the order praised Sudan for “a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism.” The order, which was one of President Obama’s final acts in office, called for a conditional return of U.S. trade and investment transactions with Sudan with permanent revocation of sanctions after a six-month monitoring period and approval by certain U.S. agencies. Consistent with this order, OFAC issued a temporary general license on January 17, 2017, authorizing transactions that were previously prohibited by the aforementioned sanctions. As it turns out, the January 17 general license marked the end of the main set of sanctions against Sudan. READ MORE

Breaking Down Telia: One of the Largest FCPA Settlements and One of the First of the Trump Administration

The recent settlement by Telia Company AB (“Telia”), one of the first of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) under the Trump administration and one of the largest FCPA enforcement actions to date, has been touted by some as a sign that enforcement will remain tough. In this area of the law with scant case law or other guidance for companies looking to evaluate their own conduct and compliance programs, do these charting and resolution documents offer anything new? Telia obtained the maximum downward departure from the US Sentencing Guidelines and avoided the imposition of an independent monitor – what can be gleaned from the facts of the resolution as to how?

THE ALLEGATIONS

On September 21, 2017, Telia, a Swedish telecommunications company, entered into a $965 million joint settlement with U.S., Dutch, and Swedish authorities. The settlement revolved around allegations that Telia bribed a foreign official (widely reported to be Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s former president Islam Karimov), to assist Telia and its Uzbeki subsidiary, Coscom LLC (“Coscom”) in expanding the company’s share of the Uzbeki telecommunications market. According to the settlement documents (Links to the settlements: DOJ and SEC), from 2006 to 2007, Telia made approximately $331 million in corrupt payments to secure approvals from the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information and business in the Uzbek telecommunications sector, generating more than $2.5 billion in revenues and approximately $457 million in profit. READ MORE