SEC Freezes $27 Million Related to a Blockchain/Cryptocurrency Acquisition

On April 6, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) obtained a court order freezing more than $27 million in proceeds from alleged illegal distributions and sales of restricted shares of a public company, and charged the company, its CEO, and three other affiliated individuals. That same day, the Nasdaq Stock Market said it halted trading in the company’s stock. The SEC’s complaint alleges that shortly after the company began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market and announced the acquisition of a purported blockchain-empowered cryptocurrency business that its stock price rose dramatically until its market capitalization exceeded $3 billion. The SEC further alleges that the CEO and the three other individual defendants then illegally sold large blocks of their restricted shares to the public while the stock price was excessively elevated and that they collectively reaped more than $27 million in profits.

By way of background, and as alleged by the SEC, the company went public under a scaled-down version of a traditional initial public offering known as Reg A+ late last year. In December 2017, the company’s Class A shares began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Two days later, the company announced that it had acquired the purported blockchain-empowered cryptocurrency business from another entity. The SEC alleges that one of the individual defendants held at least a 92% stake in this entity. The SEC further alleges that — notwithstanding that this acquired business had no ascertainable value — the company’s stock price rose excessively and quickly after said acquisition. Specifically, by December 18, 2017, the company’s stock price rose to a high of $142.82 per share; an increase of nearly 550% from the prior day’s closing price and about 2,670% above the company’s closing price on its first day of trading just several days earlier.

This action serves as yet another example of the SEC’s heightened and aggressive focus in this area. As we discussed previously on this blog, one of the focus areas for the SEC’s Cyber Unit that was created just last September is “Violations involving distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings.” More recently, the financial press reported that the SEC had launched a “sweep” in this area by serving subpoenas and information requests on technology companies and investment management firms and brokers doing business in the virtual currency markets.

Returning to the SEC’s $27 million freeze action here, the SEC alleged only registration offering violations against the defendants. This may not be the last of the charges, however, as the SEC described this as a “continuing investigation” in its press release.

Supreme Court Unanimously Holds that Whistleblowers Must First Report to the SEC Before Being Afforded Dodd-Frank Anti-Retaliation Protections

In a 9-0 opinion issued on Wednesday, February 21, in Digital Realty Trust v. Somers (2018), the Supreme Court resolved a circuit split by holding that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision does not apply to an individual, like Somers, who reported a violation of the securities law internally at his company but did not report the violation to the SEC.

As we have previously written, this case came to the Supreme Court from the Ninth Circuit, affirming the District Court’s holding that Section 78u-6(h), Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision, did not necessitate reporting a potential violation to the SEC before gaining “whistleblower” status. Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc., 850 F.3d 1045 (9th Cir. 2016). The Fifth Circuit had previously come to the opposite holding. Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013). The Supreme Court decided this circuit split and reversed the Ninth Circuit’s holding—taking a narrow view of the “whistleblower” definition and statutory construction.

Dodd-Frank defines a “whistleblower” as “any individual who provides . . . information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the Commission, in a manner established, by rule or regulation, by the Commission.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(a)(6) (emphasis added). Somers and the Solicitor General argued that the “whistleblower” definition applies only to Dodd-Frank’s monetary reward program for whistleblowers and does not apply to its anti-retaliation provision. Further, the SEC itself advanced this view in its Rules. See 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-2. The rule, as well as interpretative guidance released in 2015, explained that there were two definitions of “whistleblower”: one for the reward program, which required reporting to the SEC, and one only for the anti-retaliation provision, as long as the information is provided “in a manner described in Section 21F(h)(1)(A) of the Exchange Act,” which includes internal reporting. See id.; SEC Rel. No. 34-75592. The Rule further qualified that “[t]he anti-retaliation protections apply whether or not you satisfy the requirements, procedures and conditions to qualify for an award.” 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-2(b)(1)(iii).

The Supreme Court, however, found this argument to be at odds with the “plain” language of the statute and the purpose of this portion of Dodd-Frank—to encourage individuals to report violations to the SEC. The Supreme Court reasoned that the SEC Rule should not be accorded deference because “Congress has directly spoken” on this issue in its unambiguous language in Dodd-Frank, and concluded that the language in Dodd-Frank was explicit in its exclusive inclusion of only those individuals who report securities complaints to the SEC.

While the Supreme Court’s decision limits the scope of potential “whistleblowers” who could seek the protection of the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provision, the decision may have another, less positive, collateral consequence. When the SEC promulgated the whistleblower rules, it received dozens of comments suggesting that the SEC require employees to report internally before reporting potential violations to the SEC. The SEC rejected that approach, but attempted to encourage internal reporting by including as a factor in deciding the amount of an award whether the whistleblower first reported the potential violation internally. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, it is more likely that employees will forego reporting any potential violations internally and instead go straight to the SEC so as to not only qualify for an award, but also to seek the protection of the anti-retaliation provision.

SEC Announces Enforcement Division Cyber Specialty Unit

On September 25, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced the creation of an Enforcement Division “Cyber Unit” that will focus on cyber-related violative conduct. The timing of this is much more than coincidental; indeed it’s obvious. Just last week, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton disclosed: 1) a 2016 intrusion of the SEC’s EDGAR system due to a software vulnerability in the test filing component of the system, resulting in access to nonpublic information; and 2) the creation of a senior-level cybersecurity working group. Since the disclosure of the EDGAR breach, the financial press has reported that SEC Enforcement, the Secret Service, and the FBI have been investigating, and that Chairman Clayton asked the SEC’s Office of Inspector General to investigate. On September 26, 2017, Chairman Clayton appears before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs where he will provide testimony and likely be subject to intense questioning.

Returning to the SEC’s Cyber Unit, while not specifically described as such, it appears to be created in the mold of the other Enforcement Division Specialty Units. This new unit’s mandate includes targeting cyber-related violative conduct, such as: market manipulation schemes involving false information spread through electronic and social media; hacking to obtain material nonpublic information; misuse of distributed ledger technology; misconduct perpetrated via the dark web; intrusions into retail brokerage accounts; and cyber-related threats to trading platforms and other critical market infrastructure. Consistent with this being a new specialty unit, the “Chief” is a former Co-Chief of the SEC’s Market Abuse Specialty Unit. Thus, registrants can expect the Cyber Unit to evolve much as the SEC’s other specialty units have previously. Specifically, this unit will likely: develop and expand SEC internal cyber knowledge; seek to hire external cyber experts; and dedicate its efforts and resources to this specialty area. Consistent with the evolutions of the other specialty units, the Cyber Unit will likely pursue cases that the Enforcement Division generally and historically might not have pursued, such as non-fraud violations considered more technical in nature.

While it’s ironic that the SEC announced the Cyber Unit on the heels of its recent breach, issuers and registrants should take this opportunity to self-assess and implement plans to avoid the SEC’s Cyber Unit in the future. Among various strategies, actively monitoring and assessing the SEC’s cybersecurity guidance and, in particular, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations Risk Alerts, and documenting this work will support arguments of reasonable and diligent efforts. For further and more detailed guidance, look to FINRA’s February 2015 Report on Cybersecurity Practices. While FINRA’s oversight is limited to its member broker-dealer firms, this 46-page report provides plain-language guidance that any company or firm may want to consider reviewing and implementing as appropriate.

D.C. Circuit Split on Constitutionality of SEC’s Administrative Judges

We previously blogged about the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Raymond J. Lucia Cos v. SEC, which rejected the petitioner’s constitutional challenges to the SEC’s use of administrative law judges that are not appointed by the President. Yesterday, the D.C. Circuit issued a two sentence per curiam order denying an en banc review by an equally divided court.

We noted that the panel’s original opinion was the first appellate ruling of its kind. Although the panel’s decision remains in effect because the full court did not rehear the case, the strength of that ruling is now severely undermined. As we previously reported, the Tenth Circuit has already disagreed with the D.C. Circuit’s panel and held that the SEC’s administrative law judges are subject to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. Yesterday’s order likely sets the stage for a Supreme Court challenge.

SEC Names Co-Directors of Enforcement

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that Acting Enforcement Director Stephanie Avakian and former federal prosecutor Steven Peikin had been named Co-Directors of the Division of Enforcement. In making the announcement, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton advised:

There is no place for bad actors in our capital markets, particularly those that prey on investors and undermine confidence in our economy. Stephanie and Steve will aggressively police our capital markets and enforce our nation’s securities laws as Co-Directors of the Division of Enforcement. They have each demonstrated market knowledge, impeccable character, and commitment to public service, and I am confident their combined talents and experience will enable them to effectively lead the Division going forward.

Prior to being named Acting Director in December 2016, Ms. Avakian served as Enforcement’s Deputy Director since June 2014. Mr. Peikin joins the SEC for the first time from private practice. Prior to that, from 1996 to 2004, Mr. Peikin served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He was Chief of the Office’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force, where he supervised some of the nation’s highest profile prosecutions of accounting fraud, insider trading, market manipulation, and abuses in the foreign exchange market. As a prosecutor, Mr. Peikin also personally investigated and prosecuted a wide variety of securities, commodities, and other investment fraud schemes, as well as other crimes.

As Chairman Clayton continues to appoint the Division leadership at the SEC and establish his own agenda for the Commission as its new Chairman, these Co-Director appointments bear a strong resemblance to those of his predecessors, Chair Mary Jo White and Chair Mary Schapiro. First, in 2009, Chair Schapiro appointed a former federal prosecutor for the first time to lead the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. Second, in 2013, Chair White appointed another former federal prosecutor, Andrew Ceresney. In furtherance of the striking similarities, Chair White appointed Mr. Ceresney as a Co-Director with the then Acting Director. Mr. Ceresney eventually took over the Directorship on his own. Thus, while many forecasted that the new Commission may perhaps be friendlier to the industry, with these Co-Director appointments Chairman Clayton looks to be following the lead of his recent predecessors rather than breaking from them. Lastly, if the precedent of the only prior Co-Directorship is any indication, then at some point in the foreseeable future Mr. Peikin will be occupying the Director’s chair on his own, as Mr. Ceresney ultimately did.

Ninth Circuit: You Don’t Need to Report Securities Violations to the SEC to Be Protected by the Dodd-Frank Anti-Retaliation Provision

On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the anti-retaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act protects individuals who make purely internal disclosures of alleged securities violations. The decision, Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc., No. 15-17352 (9th Cir. March 8, 2017), aligns the Ninth Circuit with the Second Circuit, which reached the same result in Berman v. Neo@ogilvy, LLC, 801 F.3d 145 (2d Cir. 2015). These opinions stand in stark contrast to the position of the Fifth Circuit, which concluded in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), that in order to enjoy the protection of the anti-retaliation provision an individual must report the alleged securities violation to the SEC. While the Ninth Circuit’s decision is the latest entry in this evolving circuit split, it is unlikely to be the last—the Third Circuit is considering this very issue.

The Dodd-Frank Act defines a “whistleblower” as “any individual who provides, or 2 or more individuals acting jointly who provide, information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the Commission, in a matter established by rule or regulation, by the Commission.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(a)(6).

As even the Ninth Circuit acknowledged, the definition above describes only those who report information to the SEC. But the Ninth Circuit did not regard this as determinative of the issue. Instead, the court analyzed both the purpose of the Dodd-Frank Act and the scope of the activities specifically covered by the anti-retaliation provision to reach its ultimate conclusion. In particular, the anti-retaliation provision protects those who engage in lawful activities “in making disclosures that are required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 . . . and any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(A)(iii). The Ninth Circuit, like the Second Circuit, noted that Sarbanes-Oxley requires both accountants and lawyers to report internally before they report to the SEC. Thus, using the “whistleblower” definition from Section 78u-6(a)(6) for purposes of the anti-retaliation provision would provide almost no protection to such lawyers and accountants—they would be forced to report internally first, and could legally be subject to retaliation in the period between their mandatory internal reporting and the time they made the report to the SEC. The Ninth Circuit concluded that such an approach “would make little practical sense and undercut congressional intent.”

The Ninth Circuit also agreed with the Second Circuit that the SEC regulation promulgated to implement anti-retaliation provision is entitled to deference. That regulation, Exchange Act Rule 21F-2, 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-2, makes clear that the anti-retaliation provision protects anyone who engages in activities protected by 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(A), including those who make internal disclosures under Sarbanes-Oxley.

Continuing its trend in Court of Appeals cases on this issue, the SEC appeared and argued as amicus in favor of expansive coverage of the anti-retaliation provision.

Acting SEC Chairman Limits Delegated Formal Order Authority

Acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar has apparently revised the staff’s ability to subpoena records and investigative testimony (“formal order authority”) by returning the authority to grant formal order authority to the agency’s Director of Enforcement. While the SEC has not formally recognized this policy shift, multiple sources, including Law360 and the Wall Street Journal, have reported that Acting Chair Piwowar has recently implemented this change, which revokes the delegated authority to regional directors and enforcement associate directors to approve the staff’s requests for formal order authority.

In 2009, under Chair Mary Schapiro and as part of certain initiatives to enhance enforcement’s capabilities in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the SEC delegated its authority to authorize formal order authority to the Director of Enforcement. The Director of Enforcement, in turn, delegated this authority to regional directors and enforcement associate directors. As a result, the staff could, within an hour (when necessary) obtain formal order authority, as compared to the days, weeks, or at times months, that it had historically taken to obtain formal order authority from the Commission. Not unexpectedly, the number of formal investigations opened by the staff dramatically increased.

Acting Chair Piwowar’s recent move eliminates the second layer of delegation by limiting the 2009 delegated authority to the Director of Enforcement. While the effect of this change on the number of SEC investigations remains uncertain, multiple sources report that Acting Chair Piwowar enacted the policy not to reduce that number, but to bring greater oversight and consistency to the investigation process. Further, while he is not authorized to take the step alone, as it would require a vote of the Commission which is currently comprised of only two members, Acting Chair Piwowar and Commissioner Kara Stein, the acting chair has asked the SEC’s general counsel to consider whether the agency should further restrict formal order authority by returning the power to grant it to the SEC Commissioners. Thus, at Acting Chair Piwowar’s direction, the SEC is considering a return to the pre-2009 formal order authority review and approval process.

The revocation of the regional and associate directors’ delegated ability to approve formal order authority is the latest action taken by Acting Chair Piwowar, who stepped in as acting chairman after former Chair Mary Jo White stepped down at the conclusion of the Obama administration. His actions have included requesting that all authorities granted to staff members be reviewed and that public disclosure rules required by Dodd-Frank be reconsidered.  Such actions indicate efforts to begin the reshaping of the agency as it awaits the confirmation of President Trump’s nomination for chairman, Jay Clayton.

District Court Invalidates Tolling Agreements in Criminal Securities Fraud Prosecution Case Due to Misunderstanding of Applicable Statute of Limitations

On January 30, 2017, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the government’s indictment against Guy Gentile for a pump-and-dump securities fraud scheme. After his arrest Gentile admitted to having engaged in the scheme and agreed to cooperate, which included signing two tolling agreements, each extending the statute of limitations for one year. In dismissing the indictments, the court held that the tolling agreements were invalid and the applicable statute of limitations for securities fraud was five years, not six years.

According to the opinion, Gentile engaged in a securities fraud scheme that indisputably ended in June 2008, at which time the statute of limitations for securities fraud was five years. In 2010, however, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act extended the statute of limitations to six years for certain criminal securities fraud violations. Gentile was charged on June 25, 2012 and arrested on July 13, 2012, i.e. four years after the criminal conduct. Under interrogation, Gentile admitted to the fraud and agreed to cooperate with the government. Gentile entered into a tolling agreement with the government that tolled the limitations period from July 31, 2012 through July 31, 2013. Gentile subsequently signed a second tolling agreement, tolling the limitations period from July 31, 2013 through July 31, 2014. Gentile, however, refused to sign a third tolling agreement because he wanted all cooperation and criminal actions to be concluded by June 30, 2015. Critically, when entering the tolling agreements, both the government and Gentile assumed the statute of limitations was five years (the limitations period in effect at the time of the criminal conduct) and not six years (the limitations period in effect at the time of the arrest). Accordingly, at the time that the second tolling agreement expired, the government would have had to indict Gentile prior to July 31, 2015.

Unable to reach a plea deal, the government indicted Gentile in March 2016 and Gentile moved to dismiss. If the statute of limitations had been six years, the second tolling agreement would have presumably given the government until July 31, 2016 to indict. The court, however, disagreed. The court first found that, “limited to the specific facts of this case,” the tolling agreements were invalid because Gentile did not have a full understanding of the waiver. Slip Op. at 6. The court reasoned that “the waivers were executed unknowingly since Defendant clearly thought he was extending his exposure to criminal prosecution by two years when in fact, if the statute of limitations was six years, he was extending the period of exposure by three years.” Slip Op. at 7. That misunderstanding rendered the waivers invalid, with the effect that the statute of limitations was not tolled. Without a toll, the government’s deadline to indict was either June 30, 2013 (under the five-year limitations period) or June 30, 2014 (under the six-year limitations period). In either event, the March 2016 indictment was untimely.

After holding that the defendant’s ignorance of the potential six-year limitations period rendered the tolling agreements invalid, the court then held that the applicable statute of limitations is in fact five years, i.e., exactly what the Gentile had thought when he entered the tolling agreements. The court relied on the presumption against retroactivity absent express congressional intent. Since the applicable section of the Dodd-Frank act “contains no discussion nor mention of retroactivity, let alone clear intent that Congress intended th[e] section to apply to crimes committed prior to its enactment[,]” the six-year limitations period is not retroactive. Because the applicable statute of limitations was five years, even if the tolling agreements were valid, the indictment was untimely, as the tolling agreements would have only extended the statute of limitations until June 30, 2015.