Congress recently overrode President Trump’s veto of the $740 billion 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) and signed it into law. While the focus of the NDAA is not on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), the NDAA does include a provision that gives the SEC, for the first time ever, statutory authority to seek disgorgement in federal court for securities enforcement matters. Further, the NDAA also provides for a 10-year statute of limitations for the SEC to seek such disgorgement for scienter-based violations, extending and doubling the current 5-year statute of limitations.
Last week, on December 16, 2020, Chinese-based coffee chain Luckin Coffee Inc. (“Luckin”) agreed to a $180 million settlement with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). Luckin’s American Depositary Shares traded on the Nasdaq until July 13, 2020. The settlement stems from allegations that Luckin defrauded investors by materially misstating revenues, expenses, and net operating losses. The SEC’s complaint alleges that these fraudulent accounting actions were taken in an attempt by Luckin to increase profitability and meet earnings estimates.
The case is a reminder of risks associated with investing in U.S. listed companies with Chinese operations, which the SEC flagged in a June 2011 bulletin and a December 2018 cautionary public statement. The case follows a number of SEC enforcement proceedings brought in 2011-2012 featuring trading halts or delistings of at least 50 companies in those years.
This edition of the Enforcement Highlights financial services enforcement movie reviews is a sequel to the initial set of reviews issued with the blog’s re-launch several months ago. Like any sequel, we are hopeful that it will be as well received as the original edition; like the Godfather Part II. Once again, we have selected several movies for coverage. We start with a discussion of a holiday movie controversy, take a deep dive into a holiday classic, and then turn to recommendations of non-holiday movies to watch over the holiday season.
In a 30-day period, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has released guidance in three ways regarding certain views on the important role and potential liability risks of chief compliance officers (“CCOs”). SEC Commissioner Hester M. Peirce first raised these topics in a speech to the National Society of Compliance Professionals, advocating for greater clarity regarding the SEC’s decisions to impose individual liability on compliance professionals and challenging the wisdom of charging chief compliance officers “based on mere negligence.” Hester M. Peirce, When the Nail Fails—Remarks before the National Society of Compliance Professionals (Oct. 19, 2020). Book-ended thirty days later, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) issued a “Risk Alert” titled OCIE Observations: Investment Adviser Compliance Programs (“OCIE Compliance Risk Alert”). That same day, OCIE Director Peter Driscoll gave a speech that served as the Opening Remarks at National Investment Adviser/Investment Company Compliance Outreach 2020, titled The Role of the CCO – Empowered, Senior and With Authority, Peter Driscoll (Nov. 19, 2020). It is unprecedented for the SEC to discuss this important topic utilizing several platforms in such a short period. Taking notice of this, below we analyze the guidance provided by each. We also observe that the SEC’s focus on the role of compliance is not new but that sometimes the SEC’s support for compliance has not appeared to extend beyond OCIE. Cf. Lori Richards’ (then-OCIE Director) October 2007 Speech “Working Towards a Culture of Compliance: Some Obstacles in the Path” (observing that an effective compliance program required management support, a “seat at the table” for the CCO, adequate compliance staffing relative to the size and risks of the firm’s business, and “tone at the top” from the CEO down); with Luis A Aguilar’s (then SEC Commissioner) June 2015 Speech “The Role of the Chief Compliance Officers Must be Supported” (defending recent SEC enforcement actions against CCOs and explaining that those CCOs acting in “good faith” should not fear 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.
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.
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.
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.