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 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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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
On October 12, 2017, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee met to discuss Blockchain technology and its impact on the securities industry. While Blockchain is best known as the decentralized accounting system that make transactions in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible, the panel of industry professionals and academics emphasized its potential to transform “mainstream” financial recordkeeping in a way that makes executing and recording all financial transactions more secure and efficient.
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, who oversaw the proceedings, explained that the Commission seeks to explore the ways in which Blockchain can promote robust and competitive markets, while ensuring that investors are protected and federal securities laws are applied to transactions in cryptocurrencies made possible by the technology.
As the U.S. Supreme Court commenced a new term last week, one issue of substantial interest to many readers of this blog is whether the Court will address the constitutionality of the Securities & Exchange Commission’s use of administrative law judges (“ALJs”) to adjudicate enforcement proceedings. The issue, which we have covered extensively in past posts, essentially comes down to whether SEC ALJs are Officers subject to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, or whether they are merely employees, who do not require appointment by the President or a Presidential appointee. The SEC currently selects ALJs through an internal administrative process, pursuant to 5 USC 3105.
Advocates on both sides of a clear circuit split have already filed petitions for writ of certiorari. Most recently, on September 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice Solicitor General’s office filed a certiorari petition on behalf of the SEC asking the Court to review the Tenth Circuit’s December 2016 holding in Bandimere v. SEC. That holding, which was denied en banc review by the Tenth Circuit in May, found that SEC ALJs were “inferior Officers” and thus are subject to the Appointments Clause. After the Tenth’s Circuit ruling in Bandimere, the SEC stayed all administrative ALJ proceedings that could be appealed to the Tenth Circuit pending resolution of the issue by the Supreme Court or further order of the Commission.
On September 26, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee regarding the direction of the SEC under his Chairmanship. He also took the opportunity to address the 2016 cyberattack on EDGAR, the agency’s electronic filing system.
As in his first public speech as SEC Chair, in July 2017, Chairman Clayton’s testimony reveals his focus on issues related to cybersecurity, capital formation, and enforcement actions addressing traditional forms of fraud and misconduct. His testimony further reveals his position that regulations should be retroactively evaluated and relaxed as necessary, in order to account for the direct and indirect costs of compliance.
Below are key highlights of Chairman Clayton’s testimony:
On September 14, 2017, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) issued a Risk Alert in which it highlighted a number of compliance issues it had identified relating to the so-called Advertising Rule (Rule 206(4)-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”)).
The Advertising Rule imposes four specific provisions that prohibit investment advisers from making certain references, representations, and statements in advertisements that are deemed to be fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-1(a)(1)-(a)(4)). It further prohibits advertisements that contain untrue statements of material fact, or are otherwise false or misleading (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-1(a)(5)).
Specifically, the Advertising Rule prohibits advertising that refers to any testimonial regarding an adviser’s advice, analysis, report, or service; advertising that refers to past recommendations that were or would have been profitable to any person, with limited exceptions; advertising, representing, through graphs, charts, formulas, or other devices, that a decision to buy or sell a security can be made on the sole basis of that representation; and advertising containing any statements that any report, analysis, or service will be provided free of charge, unless it will be furnished free and without any obligation. The Advertising Rule also expressly prohibits an adviser, directly or indirectly, from publishing, circulating, or distributing any advertisement that contains any untrue statement of a material fact, or which is otherwise false or misleading. READ MORE