U.S. District Judge Rejects Argument that Sale of “Stand-In” Tokens Was Not a Sale of Unregistered Securities

On January 8, 2021, Judge Richard Seeborg of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an Order denying a motion to dismiss in S.E.C. v. NAC Foundation, LLC, et al.  The U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) had previously filed a civil complaint against blockchain development company NAC Foundation, LLC (NAC) and NAC’s CEO, Marcus Rowland, alleging that NAC’s and Rowland’s sale of “stand-in” digital tokens constituted a fraudulent and unregistered sale of digital securities.  The Department of Justice (DOJ) brought a parallel criminal proceeding, alleging violations of federal wire fraud and money laundering statutes.  DOJ also filed a separate criminal case against former high-profile lobbyist Jack Abramoff in connection with his role in the promotion of NAC’s digital assets.

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SEC Enforcement Victory in its Efforts to Police Cannabis Industry Investments

As the cannabis industry continues to evolve and generate capital raising and investment opportunities, the SEC Division of Enforcement will continue to closely keep watch and target the bad actors that new market opportunities such as this inevitably and unfortunately attract.  Along those lines, investors looking to purchase stock in supposed cannabis company, Covalent Collective, may have found vindication in the recent judgment against Geoffrey Thompson, of Frankfurt, Illinois. Thompson is now permanently barred from engaging in the issuance, purchase, offer, or sale of any security, except in connection with his own personal account.  On January 20, 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (Case No. 1:20-cv-05205), ruled in favor of the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), in connection with its complaint targeting Thompson.  Although Thompson did not admit or deny the allegations, he consented to the entry of the final judgment against him, which also ordered him to pay over half a million dollars collectively in disgorgement, prejudgment interest and civil penalties.

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The U.S. Department of Justice Releases its Cryptocurrency Enforcement Framework

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released its highly anticipated Cryptocurrency Enforcement Framework (the “Framework”).  The Framework was developed as part of the Attorney General’s Cyber-Digital Task Force, and contains three sections:  (1) Threat Overview; (2) Law and Regulations; and (3) Ongoing Challenges and Future Strategies.

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CFTC Enforcement Division Reports Most Active Year to Date

On December 1, 2020, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) Division of Enforcement released its Annual Report, which details a “record-breaking” fiscal year 2020 (“FY 2020”), despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notably, the CFTC filed a historic 113 enforcement actions—up from 69 filed in FY 2019, 83 filed in FY 2018, and an increase over the previous high of 102 filed in FY 2012. The chart below shows the breakdown of enforcement actions by category, and Appendix B of the Annual Report provides individual case citations.

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After a Year of Record-Breaking Enforcement Fines, the CFTC Provides Guidance on the Recognition of Cooperation

Weeks after touting its record-breaking enforcement haul, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) Enforcement Division issued a memorandum providing guidance for enforcement staff to use when recommending the recognition of cooperation, self-reporting and remediation during the enforcement process. The historic enforcement performance demonstrated that the CFTC can wield a large stick, but the latest guidance is aimed at recognizing efforts in resolving violations.

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Two Recent SEC Cases Involving Cryptocurrency Offerings

Ever since the creation of Bitcoin in the late 2000s, the SEC has warned that, depending on the circumstances, “initial coin offerings” (ICOs) involving digital tokens or coins may be subject to regulation under the federal securities laws.1 The SEC has provided “facts and circumstances” guidance regarding whether a particular cryptocurrency offering involves a security. See, e.g., the SEC’s Framework for “Investment Contract Analysis of Digital Assets.” But officials have opined that cryptocurrencies sold only to be used to purchase a good or service, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, may not be securities.2

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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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CFTC Continues Efforts to Increase Enforcement Transparency – Issues New Guidance on Evaluating Corporate Compliance Program

On September 10, 2020, the CFTC announced the issuance of new, public, guidance to its enforcement staff on evaluating the adequacy of corporate compliance programs. The new guidance provides enforcement staff a framework with which to assess participants’ compliance programs, and is intended to ensure consistency and transparency in such reviews.

The latest publication continues the Commission’s efforts to increase transparency in the enforcement process. In May, the CFTC formally issued guidance regarding Enforcement’s decisions to recommend the imposition of civil monetary penalties, and last year the Division issued its first public Enforcement Manual. More details on these previous issuances from the CFTC can be found here and here.

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