Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.
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.
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
In a move that highlights both the increased focus on holding individuals accountable and the credit that can be earned through cooperation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced last week that, for the first time, it entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) with an individual allegedly involved in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) case. On February 16, 2016, the SEC announced a DPA with Yu Kai Yuan, a former employee of software company PTC Inc.’s Chinese subsidiaries. The SEC agreed to defer civil FCPA charges against Yu for three years in recognition of his cooperation during the SEC’s investigation. PTC also reached a settlement with the SEC, in which the company agreed to disgorge $11.8 million. Prior to the Yu DPA, the SEC had entered into one DPA with an individual in November 2013, in a matter involving a hedge fund manager allegedly stealing investor assets. However, never before this time was a DPA with the SEC related to an FCPA case.
On August 4, 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance elaborating its view that the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply equally to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, as well as those who are retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The guidance reflects that there is a split among federal courts over whether Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions apply to internal as well as external reporting, and recognizes that the only circuit court to decide the issue to date, the Fifth Circuit, has taken a contrary position to that of the Commission in Rule 21F, the regulation the SEC adopted to implement the whistleblower legislation, holding that internal reports are not protected by Dodd-Frank. Whether internal reports qualify for Dodd-Frank coverage has important implications because, among other things, Dodd Frank provides enhanced recoveries (including two times back pay) and longer time frames (six years) for bringing a retaliation claim than would be available under the anti-retaliation provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
On April 9, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Hewlett-Packard had agreed to pay more than $108 million to settle Foreign Corrupt Practices Act actions brought by the SEC and the Department of Justice. These actions were based on HP’s subsidiaries’ alleged payments of more than $3.6 million to Russian, Polish, and Mexican government officials to obtain or maintain lucrative public contracts. The settlement is important because it highlights the SEC’s and DOJ’s continued focus on companies’ internal controls, particularly in the FCPA arena. It also shows that the SEC may be able to use lesser, non-fraud offenses in which the underlying conduct involves a fairly de minimis amount of money to police behavior and subject companies to significant financial consequences. READ MORE
Comments made by Kara N. Brockmeyer, the Securities Exchange Commission’s chief of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) unit, and Charles E. Duross, deputy chief of the Department of Justice’s FCPA unit, at the recent International Conference on the FCPA suggest that both agencies are increasing their scrutiny of possible FCPA violations for the next year. Both units have increased their resources for tackling investigations of possible FCPA violations. Additionally, both agencies have increased awareness among other U.S. and international government agencies so that those agencies could also be on the lookout for possible FCPA violations. Having strengthened their relationships with overseas regulators, both agencies are optimistic that they are in the position to bring significant FCPA cases in the following year.
According to Andrew Ceresney, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division, the SEC also expects that FCPA violations will be “increasingly fertile ground” for the Dodd-Frank whistle-blower program. The SEC received 149 FCPA violation tips from whistle-blowers in just the last year and the SEC expects more enforcement cases to arise from whistle-blowers. READ MORE