As the world is navigating through COVID-19 and as we are focused on our health and well-being as we self-quarantine and engage in social distancing to do our part to stop the spread, our markets remain open, active, and volatile, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has recently made clear that they will continue to be an active overseer.
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.
The SEC, through its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”), recently issued its most detailed cyber guidance to date. OCIE had previously issued several cybersecurity risk alerts over the past few years. This most recent release, however, offers much more than a risk alert. OCIE’s “Cybersecurity and Resiliency Observations” goes into significantly more detail than OCIE’s prior risk alerts in this area and is fashioned in a vastly different and more user-friendly format. Thus, it is required reading for SEC regulated entities because, rest assured, it will be closely followed and applied by OCIE staff conducting cyber examinations, as well as by the Division of Enforcement’s “Cyber Unit.”
The college football bowl season is upon us, NFL teams are jockeying for playoff seeding, and with the college basketball season underway fans of that game are looking longingly towards March for how their brackets may look for the 2020 tournament. Thus, sports and the gambling associated with it are all around us. In recent years, this gambling has risen from the shadows and is now openly discussed throughout society. So this industry has evolved and continues to evolve, since the times when gamblers needed to travel to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to legally gamble. Over the years, state laws have expanded such that today numerous states allow gambling in some form. Further accelerating this expansion, in the spring of 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.
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.
In a ruling handed down on Tuesday, a Southern District of New York judge ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (“USAO”) to submit a full account of their communications with the SEC after defendant Jason Rhodes accused the USAO of using the SEC to develop its criminal case against him.
Rhodes was charged with four counts, including conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud, and investment advisor fraud, in what the government alleges was an elaborate $19.6 million scheme to defraud investors. Notably, the charges against Rhodes were brought almost two years after the government charged all other co-conspirators. During that time, the SEC initiated an investigation involving Rhodes.
In a motion filed back in March of this year, Rhodes argued that the USAO may have violated his due process rights by using the SEC civil process to further its criminal investigation against him. During the SEC’s investigation, it used its investigatory authority to obtain documents from Rhodes, including communications and data from his cellphone. These documents were then turned over to the USAO and the substance of certain of those documents was subsequently included in the criminal complaint against him. Rhodes asserted in his motion, as soon he was arrested, the SEC stopped investigating him.
Given that timeline, the court insisted the USAO submit an affidavit outlining its relationship with the SEC regarding its civil investigation and its criminal charges against Rhodes. After one AUSA submitted an affidavit, the court held that as of now, Rhodes had not shown the government acted in bad faith. The court went on to say, however, that the submitted affidavit “d[id] nothing to advance the ball.” While the AUSA insisted that he did not request the issuance of the SEC subpoena, the affidavit was silent regarding the involvement of others in the USAO. As a result, the court ordered that the USAO submit a new affidavit “detailing, with specificity, the nature and extent of any and all communications between the SEC and those involved in the criminal investigation of Rhodes.” Only then will the court determine whether the materials should be turned over to Rhodes.
The SEC and U.S. Attorney’s Office across the country often conduct parallel investigations and the SEC regularly shares the information it gathers with those offices. While there is nothing to prevent the government from conducting parallel investigations, the government must act “in good faith and with the proper procedures.” See United States v. Kordel, 397 U.S. 1, 6(1970). Indeed, the SEC warns in its “Form 1662” that it may share the information and documents produced pursuant to a subpoena (or voluntarily) to a host of other agencies, including, but not limited to, state and federal criminal authorities. It is, however, well-settled law at this point that the criminal authorities cannot direct the SEC’s investigation and that any action taken by the SEC, including subpoenas for documents, testimony and other evidence, must be supported by the SEC’s independent decision making and must be in furtherance of its investigation; not the criminal authority’s investigation. See, e.g., United States of America v. Stringer, 408 F. Supp. 2d 1083 (Dist. Or. 2006); United States of America v. Scrushy, 366 F. Supp. 2d 1134, 1140 (N.D. Ala. 2005.
The SEC’s OCIE recently issued a Risk Alert focusing on compliance issues related to Regulation S-P, the primary SEC rule governing compliance practices for privacy notices and safeguard policies for investment advisers and broker-dealers. The Risk Alert summarizes the OCIE’s findings from two-year’s worth of issues identified in deficiency letters to assist investment advisers and broker-dealers in adopting and implementing effective policies and procedures for safeguarding customer records and information pursuant to Regulation S-P.
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.