SEC Enforcement in 2020, the Election & Future of the SEC

In Faegre Drinker’s “Enforcement Highlights” inaugural podcast, Jim Lundy moderates a panel with fellow SEC and Regulatory Enforcement partners Mike MacPhail and David Porteous, Capital Markets Team Co-Leader Beth Diffley, and Investment Management Group partner Jillian Bosmann to discuss the pandemic’s impact on the SEC’s Division of Enforcement and the potential impacts of the 2020 election on the SEC and its future.

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Aggressive SEC and DOJ Parallel Charges for Accounting Fraud

The number of public company and accounting fraud cases filed under SEC Chair Jay Clayton has declined. The SEC, however, continues to selectively pursue these types of cases. In the latest example, in aggressive parallel actions, on October 8, 2020, the SEC filed charges against SAExploration Holdings, Inc. (“SAE”) and four of its former executives – CEO and Chairman Jeffrey Hastings, CFO and General Counsel Brent Whiteley, CEO and COO Brian Beatty, and VP of Operations Michael Scott – with an accounting fraud that inflated company revenues and concealed the true nature of the relationship between SAE and one of its large customers.

In February 2020, SAE issued restated financial statements reaching as far back as 2014 which, among other things, corrected a $100 million overstatement of revenue and resulted in a $35 million reduction in the value of the company’s assets.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, in August 2002, SAE filed a voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in the Southern District of Texas.

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FCA: Working from Home Heightens Insider Trading Risks

In an October 12 speech, the Director of Market Oversight for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) emphasized the need to adapt insider trading controls to account for changes in working conditions due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Director’s speech started by discussing that global economic conditions have heightened the need for companies to raise capital, and that the UK has seen a significant portion of this activity, with the FCA citing the fact that “the UK saw a greater volume of follow-on equity issuance than the next 7 major European bourses combined.” At the same time, working conditions of financial professionals has changed dramatically since March 2020 with many now working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this situation presents novel issues for firms and professionals, the FCA emphasized the need for firms to adapt and implement effective insider trading controls. The Director emphasized, “[a]t a time where capital raising activity is vital to fuel much needed economic activity, we must be crystal clear that behaviours that risk disrupting that activity will not be tolerated.”

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CFTC Record Enforcement Year and Director Departure

On October 6, 2020, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) issued a release describing its record-breaking enforcement year.[1] The release noted that in fiscal year 2020 (“FY2020”),[2] the CFTC filed more enforcement actions than any other year in the history of the agency. CFTC Chairman Heath P. Tarbert stated “[w]e are tough on those who break the rules, and this historic year only further underscores this point.”

The most recent headlines emphasize the CFTC’s enthusiasm in pursuing spoofing-related actions.  Of note, the CFTC ordered a registrant and affiliates associated with one of the largest bank holding companies to pay a record $920 million for spoofing and manipulation that spanned over eight years.[3] This penalty comes as the largest monetary relief in the agency’s history. In September alone, the CFTC announced three other spoofing settlements with fines totaling nearly $1.8 million, and brought charges against a trading firm and two of their traders.[4]

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SEC Settles Enforcement Action against Private Equity Firm for Beneficial Ownership Reporting Violations

On September 17, 2020, the SEC announced the imposition of a cease-and-desist order against private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe (Welsh Carson), an SEC-registered investment manager, in connection with alleged violations of reporting obligations under Section 13(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act).  The SEC alleged that Welsh Carson had failed to timely amend a Schedule 13D report – commonly known as a beneficial ownership statement – after its investment position changed from an intent to acquire and restructure a company to an intent to liquidate its entire position in the company.  In connection with the entry of the SEC’s cease-and-desist order, Welsh Carson agreed to pay a civil penalty of $100,000.

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SEC Continues to Prioritize COVID Fraud Cases

On September 25, 2020, the SEC filed a civil injunctive action against a microcap company, Arrayit Corp., and its President and Chief Science Officer for falsely stating in March-April 2020 that Arrayit had developed a COVID-19 blood test when it had not yet purchased materials to make a test. The SEC further alleged that the test had been submitted for emergency approval, and falsely boasted to investors that there was a high demand for the test.

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SEC Enforcement’s First Public Company Cases Resulting from its EPS Initiative

On September 28, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) announced two settlements against public companies and individual charges against the former controller and chief accounting officer and the former chief financial officer of one of the companies. In its accompanying public announcement, the SEC advised that “The actions are the first arising from investigations generated by the Division of Enforcement’s EPS Initiative, which utilizes risk-based data analytics to uncover potential accounting and disclosure violations caused by, among other things, earnings management practices.”  This initiative exemplifies the harnessing of “Big Data,” i.e., large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations.

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CCO Barred for Altering Reports to Mislead SEC Staff

Recently, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) charged a dually registered firm and its Chief Compliance Officer (“CCO”) with multiple violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”). The charges included allegations against the CCO that she altered documents in an attempt to mislead SEC examination staff and failures to comply with enhanced policies and procedures adopted as a result of a prior examination by FINRA. The SEC charged the firm with willfully violating Section 206(4) of the Advisers Act and Rule 206(4)-7 thereunder, which require, in part, that registered investment advisors “[a]dopt and implement written policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violation” of the Advisers Act and its rules. The CCO was charged with willfully aiding and abetting the firm’s violations. The firm and the CCO were fined $1.7 million and $45,000, respectively, and the CCO was barred from the industry.

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