New SEC Enforcement Task Force Targets Environmental, Social, and Governance Issues

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.

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SEC Enforcement Restores Subpoena Power

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has restored the authority of senior Division of Enforcement (Enforcement) officials to initiate investigations, which had been revoked during the Trump administration.

On Tuesday, acting SEC chair, Allison Herren Lee, announced that certain senior Enforcement officials may once again exercise delegated authority to approve formal orders of investigation that empower Enforcement staff to subpoena documents and sworn testimony.

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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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$125 Million Deutsche Bank Settlement with SEC/DOJ Newest in Line of Several Costly Resolutions

On January 8, 2021, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order, Release No., 90875 (available here), formally resolving proceedings against Deutsche Bank AG.  Deutsche Bank agreed to pay over $125 million as part of a global resolution of allegations that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA), in connection with its use of third-party intermediaries, business development consultants, and finders engaged to advance Deutsche Bank’s global business development efforts.  The terms of Deutsche Bank’s universal settlement with the SEC and the U.S. Department of Justice included payment of more than $120 million, $43 million of that to resolve charges brought by the SEC, and the remainder in the form of criminal penalties paid to the Department of Justice.

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President Biden Announces Gary Gensler as SEC Chair Nominee

On January 18, 2021, the incoming President’s Transition Team announced additional key administration post nominees, including Mr. Gary Gensler as SEC Chair. The announcement specifically provided the following regarding Mr. Gensler’s background:

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Congress Extending the SEC Statute of Limitations to 10 Years?!!

Congress recently overrode President Trump’s veto of the $740 billion 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) and signed it into law. While the focus of the NDAA is not on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), the NDAA does include a provision that gives the SEC, for the first time ever, statutory authority to seek disgorgement in federal court for securities enforcement matters. Further, the NDAA also provides for a 10-year statute of limitations for the SEC to seek such disgorgement for scienter-based violations, extending and doubling the current 5-year statute of limitations.

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The $180 Million Chinese Coffee Case for Attempting to Manage Earnings

Last week, on December 16, 2020, Chinese-based coffee chain Luckin Coffee Inc. (“Luckin”) agreed to a $180 million settlement with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). Luckin’s American Depositary Shares traded on the Nasdaq until July 13, 2020. The settlement stems from allegations that Luckin defrauded investors by materially misstating revenues, expenses, and net operating losses. The SEC’s complaint alleges that these fraudulent accounting actions were taken in an attempt by Luckin to increase profitability and meet earnings estimates.

The case is a reminder of risks associated with investing in U.S. listed companies with Chinese operations, which the SEC flagged in a June 2011 bulletin and a December 2018 cautionary public statement. The case follows a number of SEC enforcement proceedings brought in 2011-2012 featuring trading halts or delistings of at least 50 companies in those years.

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The Pandemic Has Caused the Number of SEC Enforcement Actions to Decline Sharply in FY 2020

The SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued its annual report on November 2, 2020. According to the report, fiscal year 2020 saw the SEC file a total of 715 enforcement actions, representing a whopping 17% drop from the 862 enforcement actions it brought during the 2019 fiscal year. Indeed, the FY 2020 figure was the lowest in the past six years.  The number of SEC enforcement actions filed against public companies (61) declined to a six-year low, representing the lowest number since 2014.

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