On September 28, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) announced two settlements against public companies and individual charges against the former controller and chief accounting officer and the former chief financial officer of one of the companies. In its accompanying public announcement, the SEC advised that “The actions are the first arising from investigations generated by the Division of Enforcement’s EPS Initiative, which utilizes risk-based data analytics to uncover potential accounting and disclosure violations caused by, among other things, earnings management practices.” This initiative exemplifies the harnessing of “Big Data,” i.e., large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations.
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Liu v. SEC limited the SEC’s disgorgement power, it also left open certain complicated issues that are now subject to interpretation.1 As we previously summarized, in an 8–1 vote, the Court held that disgorgement is a permissible equitable remedy for securities fraud under § 78u(d)(5), provided the amount does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits and the money is returned to harmed investors.2
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has repeatedly touted his focus on “Main Street.” In doing so, he unleashed the Division of Enforcement’s Asset Management specialty unit on the investment advisory industry and finalized and implemented the “Reg BI” rulemaking, the SEC’s most significant sales practice regulatory development for the brokerage industry in decades. But the Division of Enforcement did not slow down its efforts in one of its core focus areas: the investigation and civil prosecution of accounting fraud by public companies and their senior officers.
What’s New: The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) recently issued a Risk Alert titled “Select COVID-19 Compliance Risks and Considerations for Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers” on August 12, 2020. This Risk Alert addressed the following topics:
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.
As we described several weeks ago, the SEC across the agency is going to be vigilant in its efforts to regulate, examine and enforce the federal securities laws regarding coronavirus/COVID-19. More recently, the SEC Division of Enforcement (“SEC Enforcement”) has stepped to the forefront of these efforts.
The SEC has suspended the trading of eleven companies for issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic since February 7, 2020. Of those eleven suspensions, seven have come since April 3rd. Most of the suspensions follow the recent statement from the co-directors of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement that “the Enforcement Division is committing substantial resources to ensuring that our Main Street investors are not victims of fraud or illegal practices in these unprecedented market and economic conditions.” In addition, the SEC this week updated an investor alert about possible investor scams related to the pandemic.
The reasons for the suspensions range from possible confusion about the name of a company to suspicious statements from companies about having “FDA-approved” at-home COVID-19 test kits, supposed new technology for non-contact human temperature screening, or the ability to produce a vaccine or protective gear.
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.