The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) addressed the public on February 19-20 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 increasing focus on cyber issues including its use of new technology to surveil and root out harmful practices in the modern and increasingly-complex market, and its continued focus on the conduct of gatekeepers. From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following:
SEC Chair Mary Jo White began her remarks by touting the “unprecedented number of enforcement cases” brought by the Commission in 2015, which produced “an all-time high for orders directing the payment of penalties and disgorgement”—a trend that she stressed would continue in 2016. READ MORE
On September 10, 2015, a divided panel of the Second Circuit issued an opinion in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, No. 14-4626 (2nd Cir. Sept. 10, 2015), creating a split with the Fifth Circuit on an issue that has also divided lower federal courts: whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, or only to those retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The Second Circuit, granting Chevron deference to SEC interpretive guidance, held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers. This stands in contrast to the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC, 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), where that court found that on their face, the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously limited protection to whistleblowers reporting to the SEC, and that, therefore, the SEC’s contrary guidance was not entitled to deference. Given this Circuit split, Supreme Court review is possible.
A recent report released by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) last week concluded that the SEC can improve its oversight of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”), a self-regulatory organization charged with policing securities broker-dealers. The GAO’s criticism of the SEC is a politically hot issue because Congress is currently considering whether to shift authority for overseeing investment advisors from the SEC to FINRA—the subordinate organization the SEC is purportedly doing a poor job of overseeing.
The GAO report was a product of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which required the GAO to study the SEC’s oversight of FINRA. In particular, the report examined (1) how the SEC has conducted its oversight of FINRA in the past; including FINRA rule proposals and the effectiveness of its rules; and (2) how the SEC plans to enhance its oversight of FINRA.
The report concluded that that while the SEC routinely inspects many of FINRA’s programs, it does not conduct any retrospective review, i.e., it does not review whether FINRA’s rules are actually effective. In fact, the report concluded that the SEC does not even have a process for retrospective review.
Significantly, the GAO report also concluded that the SEC had conducted virtually no review of FINRA operations aimed at executive compensation and corporate governance issues. The SEC claimed it had purposefully overlooked compensation and governance operations because of competing priorities and resource constraints, and instead had focused its resources on FINRA’s regulatory departments, which the SEC perceived as programs with the greatest impact on investors.
Given these and other conclusions, the GAO recommended that the SEC “encourage FINRA to conduct retrospective reviews of its rules” as well as establish its own process for examining FINRA reviews. It further recommended that the SEC utilize a risk-management framework in developing its future oversight plans.
The SEC came under scrutiny, including from U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, following an April 25, 2012 front page article in the Wall Street Journal which reported that the Agency had inadvertently revealed the identity of a whistleblower during an inquiry into his former employer.
The investigation involved Pipeline Trading Systems LLC, which runs stock trading platforms under its new name, Aritas Securities LLC. According to the article, an SEC Staff Attorney showed a notebook belonging to the whistleblower to a Pipeline executive during an interview. The executive recognized the handwriting regarding trades, meetings, and phone calls. Pipeline settled with the SEC on October 24, 2011. READ MORE