SEC “Sweep” of Public Companies’ & Registrants’ Responses to the SolarWinds Cyberbreach

As publicly reported late last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement (SEC) sent voluntary requests for information to a range of public companies and investment firms seeking voluntary disclosure of information related to last year’s SolarWinds cyberattack. Specifically, the SEC is seeking information related to whether the companies and firms were exposed to the SolarWinds cyberattack and any remedial measures the companies and firms implemented in response.

SolarWinds, an IT, network, and systems software developer, disclosed in a filing with the SEC in December 2020 that a cyberattack had infiltrated its Orion monitoring product, which could allow the attacker to compromise the server on which the Orion product runs. SolarWinds disclosed that it believed that nearly 18,000 Orion customers downloaded the product containing the vulnerability and that it had notified all 33,000 users of the product that a cyberattack had taken place. The SolarWinds cyberattack was unprecedented in its scope and sophistication—including compromising nine U.S. federal agencies—leading the United States and other governments to blame the attack on an outside nation state actor.

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Chair Gensler Overhauls PCAOB

On Friday June 4, 2021, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler removed the head of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), an independent agency created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 that is charged with setting standards and overseeing audits of public companies and broker-dealers. The move is part of a broader overhaul of the PCAOB announced by the SEC that includes soliciting nominations for all five of the PCAOB’s board positions, including board positions currently filled by members whose terms have not yet expired.

The removed chair of the PCAOB, William Duhnke III, was appointed by former President Trump and had held the position since January 2018. In 2020, President Trump called for the PCAOB to be folded into the SEC by 2022, losing its independent watchdog status. In a recent lawsuit filed against Duhnke, the PCAOB’s former chief risk officer alleged that Duhnke shared President Trump’s sentiment and called the PCAOB a “frivolous organization” that should be combined with the SEC.

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SEC’s Director of Enforcement Unexpectedly Resigns Just Days after Taking the Job: Reminiscent of Previous Resignation by former Chairman Harvey Pitt

Alex Oh, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Gary Gensler’s pick for the agency’s Director of the Division of Enforcement, unexpectedly resigned on Wednesday amid growing criticism for her decades-long work as a private corporate defense lawyer. Ms. Oh’s hiring was announced on April 22, 2021, less than a week before her resignation.

Ms. Oh’s resignation followed a ruling on Monday from Judge Royce C. Lambeth of the Federal District of Columbia reprimanding ExxonMobile’s legal team, which included Ms. Oh, for their conduct in a class action lawsuit brought by Indonesia villagers against Exxon alleging human rights abuses. According to the ruling, Exxon’s defense team characterized the lawyers for the villagers as “agitated, disrespectful and unhinged” during a deposition. Judge Lambeth ordered Exxon’s lawyers to show why penalties were not warranted for those comments.

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The Pandemic Has Caused the Number of SEC Enforcement Actions to Decline Sharply in FY 2020

The SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued its annual report on November 2, 2020. According to the report, fiscal year 2020 saw the SEC file a total of 715 enforcement actions, representing a whopping 17% drop from the 862 enforcement actions it brought during the 2019 fiscal year. Indeed, the FY 2020 figure was the lowest in the past six years.  The number of SEC enforcement actions filed against public companies (61) declined to a six-year low, representing the lowest number since 2014.

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SEC Enforcement Expanding Efforts Regarding Coronavirus Impacts

As we described several weeks ago, the SEC across the agency is going to be vigilant in its efforts to regulate, examine and enforce the federal securities laws regarding coronavirus/COVID-19. More recently, the SEC Division of Enforcement (“SEC Enforcement”) has stepped to the forefront of these efforts.

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SEC Disgorgement: Looking to the Future

On March 3, 2020, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Liu v. SEC, No. 18-1501. This article summarizes what transpired at the hearing, in which the arguments centered on a challenge to the ability of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to obtain disgorgement as an “equitable remedy” for securities law violations.

During the oral arguments, the Justices’ questions indicated that they appeared reluctant to entirely do away with disgorgement, but rather their queries focused on whether limitations should be placed on the SEC’s continuing use of disgorgement as an equitable remedy. Specifically, the Justices expressed interest in exploring parameters and limitations regarding how disgorgement is calculated and whether the SEC or defrauded investors are entitled to any disgorged funds.

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