Robinhood, “an introducing broker-dealer that provides commission-free trading to retail customers through its website and mobile applications,” recently agreed to pay a record-setting amount of $70 million — consisting of a $57 million fine and more than $12.5 million in restitution to 2,832 customers — to resolve a myriad of FINRA rule violations dating back to 2016. While the lengthy Letter of Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent No. 2020066971201 (“AWC”) reads like a final exam in a corporate compliance and securities regulation course, there are two key takeaways that merit particular emphasis. First, an overreliance on technology without sufficient safeguards or personal verification can create substantial liability. Second, making claims about new, nontraditional products being offered directly to customers can be deceptive or misleading and in violation of FINRA Rules 3110 and 2010, if FINRA determines the communications lack sufficient disclosures.
Responding to a “concern” from Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) to the purported increase in enforcement actions holding compliance personnel personally liable, the New York City Bar Association recently released a framework of nonbinding factors it believes the SEC should consider when making CCO charging decisions. The report, titled “Framework for Chief Compliance Officer Liability in the Financial Sector” (Framework), is available here. According to the Framework, it claims that the risk of facing a career-ending enforcement action has deterred qualified individuals from assuming or remaining in the all-important CCO role.
The Division of Examination’s (former OCIE) annual announcement of its exam priorities is always noteworthy, as it provides helpful insight into this division’s thinking and can serve as a roadmap for regulated entities to focus their compliance and supervision planning. The announcement of these priorities is even more important following a change in the presidential administration and the changes at the Commission that inevitably follow. Not surprisingly, the recently announced Division of Examination priorities for 2021 (summarized below) align with the Biden Administration’s policy priorities and key trends in the financial landscape.
Climate-Related Risks – Examinations will carefully consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, including climate change. In the same way that the Division of Examinations previously focused on entities’ plans and disclosures related to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Division announced that it will scrutinize business continuity plans to ensure that they “account for the growing physical and other relevant risks associated with climate change.” The Division will be looking for “maturation and improvements to these plans” to ensure that “registrants are considering effective practices to help improve responses to large-scale events.” The announcement of this examination focus also coincides with the Division of Enforcement’s announcement of the creation of a Climate and ESG Task Force. Continue reading “SEC Exams for 2021 to Focus on Climate and ESG, Reg BI, Crypto, & More”
As political leaders continue to debate how to address climate change, the SEC is poised to take (enforcement) action. In the latest example of how the Biden Administration is influencing the priorities of the SEC, the agency recently announced the creation of a Climate and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. According to the SEC, the task force’s “initial focus will be to identify any material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ disclosure of climate risks under existing rules.” The task force will also focus on investment adviser and funds, analyzing their ESG strategies for disclosure and compliance issues.
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.
In a pair of settlements announced on July 28, 2020, the SEC charged VALIC Financial Advisors (the “Firm”) with two separate sets of violations that allowed the Firm to obtain millions of dollars in fees without providing adequate disclosures about their practices and without having adequate compliance policies and procedures to disclose or protect against conflicts of interest presented by these practices. In total, the Firm agreed to pay approximately $40 million to settle both administrative proceedings. The SEC’s cases arise out of its initiatives:
From mid-March to mid-May, the SEC received more than 4,000 tips, complaints, and referrals. This, according to one of the SEC Co-Directors of the Division of Enforcement, represented a 35% increase over the same period last year. Additionally, as recently confirmed by the Director of the SEC’s New York regional office, the SEC is actively monitoring these tips, complaints, and referrals because it knows that doing so sends an important deterrence message to market participants. While the SEC has many sophisticated market monitoring and other fraud detection tools, tips and complaints provide the Enforcement Staff with valuable leads, which often develop into investigations and enforcement actions in matters that would otherwise may have remained hidden. Undoubtedly, many of these tips and complaints are either directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic or are indirectly related to the resulting economic turbulence. It is foreseeable that this significant uptick in tips and complaints will lead to a significant increase in the number of investigations and enforcement actions.
As we noted earlier this month, the SEC has sought to proactively combat fraud related to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis by suspending the trading of at least eleven different companies since February 7, 2020. On Friday, April 24th the SEC announced another major step in its related efforts to protect investors — the formation of a Cross-Divisional COVID-19 Market Monitoring Group.
According to the SEC, the group is intended to assist the Commission and staff in analyzing “the effects of COVID-19 on markets, issuers and investors—including our Main Street investors” and to work with other regulators and public sector entities such as the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, and the Financial Stability Board. This initiative is broadly linked to Chairman Clayton’s longstanding interest in supporting “the long-term interests of the Main Street investor.”