On Monday, November 9, 2015, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) released results from its evaluation of investment adviser firms’ use of third parties for compliance functions, including outsourced chief compliance officers (“CCO”). Outside CCOs often perform important compliance responsibilities, including updating firm policies and procedures, preparing regulatory filings, and conducting annual compliance reviews. Despite the importance of these functions, the Risk Alert (“Risk Alert” or “Alert”) indicated that several of the outsourced CCOs examined had not implemented effective compliance programs. The Alert, available here, sends a cautionary signal to investment adviser firms considering outsourcing compliance functions. This warning is particularly timely since government agencies, including the SEC, have increased their focus on financial firms’ compliance programs, and on CCOs in particular.
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On October 30, 2015, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) moved forward in implementing Title III of the JOBS Act and adopted new rules permitting companies to offer and sell securities to all potential investors through crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is the use of small amounts of capital from a large number of investors to finance new business ventures. This method of investment, typically conducted over the internet, is aimed at assisting smaller companies with capital formation by accessing a greater pool of potential investors. The SEC had previously opened crowdfunding investment to “accredited investors” (investors meeting certain net worth and/or investment experience criteria) but these rules permit non-accredited investors, i.e., everyone else, to participate while providing them with additional protection under the federal securities laws. Title III and these rules come in response to the enormous growth of equity crowdfunding through financing platforms such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
On September 2, 2015, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) filed an amicus brief siding with Montana and Massachusetts in a bid to overturn the SEC’s new capital-raising rule, titled Regulation A but commonly referred to as Regulation A+. The NASAA, a non-profit association of state, provincial, and territorial securities regulators in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, includes securities regulators from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The organization’s purpose is to “protect investors from fraud and abuse in connection with the offer and sale of securities.”
United States District Court Judge Richard M. Berman of the Southern District of New York has been making headlines in recent weeks as he presides over the highly publicized case between the National Football League (“NFL”) and National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”) regarding the suspension of New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady over his alleged role in “Deflategate.” Taking a page from the Patriot’s playbook, Judge Berman recently deflated the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and its controversial administrative court forum.
On July 28, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a post-trial opinion in which it criticized in particularly strong terms the analysis performed by a financial firm that was retained to value companies that were being sold to a third party or spun off to stockholders (the “valuation firm”). See Fox v. CDX Holdings Inc., C.A. No. 8031-VCL (Del Ch. July 28, 2015). CDX is just the latest decision in which the Chancery Court has awarded damages and/or ordered injunctive relief based in part on a financial firm’s failure to discharge its role appropriately. Calling the valuation firm’s work “a new low,” Vice Chancellor Laster’s opinion is another chapter in this cautionary tale that lays bare how financial firms can be exposed not only to potential monetary liability but, as importantly, significant reputational harm from flawed sell side work on M&A transactions.
On July 17, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $3 million to a company insider who provided information that “helped the SEC crack a complex fraud.” This payout represents the third highest award under the SEC’s whistleblower program to date. The SEC has made two of the three highest payments to clients of the same law firm – Phillips & Cohen LLP. (The SEC paid roughly $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and nearly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower represented by Phillips & Cohen in September 2014.). This latest multi-million dollar payout suggests that the SEC’s whistleblower program is in full swing, and that legal representation of whistleblowers may be on the rise.
In United States v. Salman, the Ninth Circuit recently held that a remote tippee could be liable for insider trading in the absence of any “personal benefit” to the insider/tipper where the insider had a close personal relationship with the tippee. This opinion is significant in that it appears at first glance to conflict with the Second Circuit’s decision last year in United States v. Newman, in which the court overturned the conviction of two remote tippees on the grounds that the government failed to establish first, that the insider who disclosed confidential information in that case did so in exchange for a personal benefit, and second, that the remote tippees were aware that the information had come from insiders. READ MORE
Last Thursday, the SEC announced it reached settlement agreements with 36 municipal securities underwriting firms pursuant to its Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) Initiative. These settlements mark the first enforcement actions against underwriters of municipal securities under the MCDC Initiative. READ MORE
Last week the SEC announced an award of between $1.4 to $1.6 million to a whistleblower who provided information that assisted the SEC in an enforcement action. The enforcement action against the whistleblower’s company resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million. This marks the second award to a whistleblower with an internal audit or compliance function at a company. The first was back in August 2014, when the SEC awarded a whistleblower in internal auditing/compliance with over $300,000. Here, as with the prior award, the officer had a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure to the SEC was necessary to prevent imminent misconduct from causing substantial financial harm to the company or investors. In both cases, responsible management was made aware of the potential harm that could occur, yet failed to take steps to prevent it.
In a speech last Thursday, SEC Chair Mary Jo White publicly addressed the issue of whether the SEC has been too lax in granting waivers to large corporations that are subject to certain restrictions under the Well-Known Seasoned Issuer (“WKSI”) regulations or the so-called “Bad Actor Rule.”
The SEC classifies certain large widely followed issuers as WKSIs under Rule 405 of the Securities Act of 1933. Issuers with WKSI status benefit from greater flexibility in registration and investor communications. Most notably, registration statements filed by WKSIs become effective immediately and automatically upon filing. Certain categories of “ineligible issuers”—including those convicted of certain crimes and those determined to have violated the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws—are precluded from qualifying for WKSI status. The SEC, however, can (and does) grant waivers to ineligible issuers upon a showing of good cause.