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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Two Stones, One Bird: SEC’s Double Whammy Against Advisory Firm

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:

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The SEC Sees a Significant Uptick in Tips, Complaints, and Referrals

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.

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SEC Announces Next Step in Pandemic Response Efforts, Forms Cross-Divisional COVID-19 Market Monitoring Group

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.”

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Under Siege from the SEC, Steven Seagal Ponies Up to Settle Charges for Promoting an Initial Coin Offering

Steven Seagal just learned the hard way that, unlike the title of his 1988 police action movie, he is not Above the Law. Unfortunately for the prolific action movie star, the SEC took notice of his recent actions and was Out for Justice. In order to avoid a Maximum Conviction, the SEC recently announced that Seagal made the Executive Decision to settle charges brought by the agency related to the actor’s failure to disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation he received for promoting an investment in an initial coin offering (ICO) conducted by Bitcoiin2Gen.

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The SEC in 2019: Doing More With Less

Facing a 35-day government shutdown and new restrictions on the ability to recover disgorgement, it would be perfectly understandable if the SEC’s Division of Enforcement suffered a lackluster year. Nevertheless, according to their recently released Annual Report, the Division of Enforcement defied the odds and turned in an impressive year by most metrics. The full report is available here, but we address several key aspects of the report below.

In fiscal year 2019 (which runs from October to September), the SEC reported a total of 862 enforcement actions, including 526 “standalone” actions filed in either federal court or as administrative proceedings, which was its highest number of standalone actions since 2016. The SEC also filed 210 “follow-on” proceedings seeking the barring of individuals based on actions by other authorities or regulators. This number of “follow-on” proceedings matched the prior year’s total, and was about 10% higher than the number of such actions filed in 2016 or 2017. Though the Report laments the handcuffs placed on the Enforcement Division by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kokesh v. SEC, which tied recoverable disgorgement to the five-year statute of limitations, the SEC nevertheless secured $3.248 billion in disgorgement – a five-year high. In addition, while 2019’s $1.101 billion in penalties was more than $300 million lower than what was ordered in 2018, it nonetheless surpassed the 2017 numbers, and contributed to a total amount of money ordered paid in 2019 (between disgorgement and penalties) that represented another five-year high for the SEC. Despite these metrics revealing a very solid year for the Enforcement Division, the Report made it a point to highlight that the SEC estimates that it has had to forgo more than $1.1 billion in disgorgement in filed cases as a result of Kokesh.

The strong financial results for 2019 were buoyed by several major actions settled in 2019. Indeed, in separate actions initiated against Mylan, Fiat Chrysler, Hertz, and two other major corporations, the SEC secured more than $200 million in penalties alone. In addition, in actions over the past two years against a variety of financial institutions relating to the early release of the American Depository Receipts, the SEC actions resulted in orders for more than $425 million in disgorgement and penalties. While these large actions contributed to the substantial financial achievements of the SEC in 2019, the report noted that in actions in which money was ordered to be paid the median amount of such total payments rose from $362,858 last year to $554,003 this year.

The SEC’s overall numbers were undoubtedly bolstered by successful implementation and conclusion of its Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative. The Initiative, which permitted investment advisory firms to self-report failures to disclose conflicts of interest associated with the selection of fee-paying share classes as opposed to low-fee or no-fee share classes, allowed self-reporters to obtain standardized (and relatively favorable) settlement terms. The Initiative generated settlements against 79 advisers in March 2019, and another 16 advisers settled in September 2019. In total, the 95 advisory firms agreed to return more than $135 million to affected investors.

In addition to emphasizing all of these key metrics, the Report reiterated several themes that have been hallmarks of the SEC under Chairman Clayton. At the top of the list is “protecting main street investors,” as evidenced by the Share Class Initiative mentioned above, as well as the continued operation of the SEC’s Retail Strategy Task Force as a source for both providing education and generating new investigations. The Report also highlighted the continuing emphasis that the SEC would be placing on holding individuals accountable for wrongdoing, and highlighted several cases from the past year in which C-level executives were charged in both settled and litigated fraud actions. Digital assets, cryptocurrency, and other distributed ledger technology cases also played a prominent role in the report, as the SEC acknowledged that its enforcement actions in this space “matured and expanded” over the past year. Finally, the Enforcement Division also explained that it was working diligently to accelerate the pace of its investigations. Not only would this faster pace decrease the chance of encountering Kokesh problems when seeking disgorgement, but it also helps speed the pace at which harmed individuals and investors can recover their losses.

In a year in which it lost more than a month due to the government shutdown and just recently regained the ability to hire new staff, the Enforcement Division appeared to work both harder and smarter to generate results that met or exceeded its recent historical benchmarks. Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the SEC can replicate or improve on these results with the benefit of additional time and a more complete complement of attorneys and other professionals.

Compliance Officers Beware: Your Conversations With the NFA During Examinations Could Lead to Charges

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) sent a strong message to Chief Compliance Officers (“CCO”) this week when it held a CCO held accountable for lying to the National Futures Association (“NFA”) during an examination. Also, if you did not believe the CFTC’s message about its intention to reach across borders to pursue bad actors, it’s time to reconsider.

Earlier this year the CFTC instituted a civil enforcement action against Phy Capital Investments, LLC and its CEO, Fabio Bretas de Freitas. The firm was formed in 2016 and the CEO solicited participants to invest in a pool to trade commodity futures contracts. According to the CFTC, despite representing to pool participants that it made substantial commodity trading profits, the firm never engaged in any trading activity and instead misappropriated participant funds. The civil charges against the firm and the CEO included various forms of fraud as well as making misstatements and omissions to the National Futures Administration (“NFA”).

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The SEC Speaks . . . and Cooperation is Key

SEC Speaks, the SEC’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., often provides valuable insight into developments at the agency, as well as pronouncements about policy evolution and enforcement priorities. At this year’s conference, “cooperation” emerged as one of the themes that the SEC has been prioritizing over the past year – and is committed to prioritizing in the future. Indeed, the co-directors of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement remarked that, “cooperation is as important now as it has ever been,” and that the “full range” of remedies are available to entities that provide meaningful cooperation to the SEC. Interestingly, the staff emphasized that the SEC is making a concerted effort to use its press releases and orders to highlight the importance, components, and benefits of cooperation – all in an effort to promote earlier, more meaningful, and more widespread cooperation.

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