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.

11th Circuit Nixes CPA’s Claim That SEC Sanctions Preclude Criminal Prosecution

On February 3, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected an accountant’s argument that the imposition of both criminal charges and SEC sanctions on the basis of the same alleged conduct violated the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause. This appellate court ruling illustrates that defendants in SEC investigations and enforcement proceedings must be mindful that the imposition of civil penalties, disgorgement, and permanent bars do not preclude the prospect of criminal prosecution.

Thomas D. Melvin (“Melvin”), a certified public accountant, agreed in April 2013 to pay the SEC a civil penalty of $108,930 and disgorgement of $68,826 to settle alleged violations of Sections 10(b) and 14(e) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 and Rules 10b-5 and 14e-3 thereunder. According to the SEC, Melvin purportedly had disclosed confidential insider information that he received from a client that pertained to the pending sale of a publicly traded company. A Rule 102(e) administrative proceeding in September 2015 also permanently barred Melvin from practicing before the SEC as an accountant. Exchange Act. Rel. No. 75844.

The Department of Justice instituted a parallel criminal proceeding against Melvin that involved the same alleged wrongful activity. Melvin moved to dismiss the eventual indictment on the ground that the collective sanctions the SEC had levied upon him constitutionally precluded a criminal prosecution under the Double Jeopardy Clause. After a federal district court denied his motion to dismiss, Melvin pleaded guilty to six counts of securities fraud pursuant to a written plea agreement. He then appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss.

In United States v. Melvin, No. 16-12061 (11th Cir. Feb. 3, 2017), the Eleventh Circuit conducted two inquiries to determine whether the imposition of the civil penalty, disgorgement and professional debarment against Melvin were so punitive that they rose to the level of a criminal penalty. For the initial inquiry, the court found that Congress intended the sanctions imposed by the SEC to be a form of civil punishment because monetary penalties are expressly labeled as “civil penalties” and the legislative branch empowered the SEC to prohibit an individual from appearing or practicing before it.

As to the second inquiry, the circuit court examined seven “useful guideposts” articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Hudson v. United States, 118 S. Ct. 488, 493 (1997). These guideposts included whether:

  1. “the sanction involves an affirmative disability or restraint”;
  2. “it has historically been regarded as a punishment”;
  3. “it comes into play only on a finding of scienter”;
  4. “its operation will promote the traditional aims of punishment—retribution and deterrence”;
  5. “the behavior to which it applies is already a crime”;
  6. “an alternative purpose to which it may rationally be connected is assignable for it”; and
  7. “it appears excessive in relation to the alternative purpose assigned.”

Applying these guideposts, the Eleventh Circuit believed that the sanctions at issue “constitute no affirmative disability or restraint approaching imprisonment” and observed that “neither money penalties nor debarment have historically been viewed as punishment.” It also noted that “penalties for security fraud serve other important nonpunitive goals, such as encouraging investor confidence, increasing the efficiency of financial markets, and promoting the stability of the securities industry.” As such, the appellate court concluded that Melvin’s criminal prosecution did not constitute a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

This ruling is the most recent cautionary reminder that, even in this era of headline-grabbing civil penalties that far exceed those the SEC sought and obtained just a few years ago, defendants should never lose sight that the resolution of SEC charges does not preclude the prospect of a parallel criminal proceeding. Indeed, any time the SEC’s prosecutorial theory is potentially fraud-based, defendants and their counsel must remain extremely cautious to the possible involvement of criminal authorities and develop their legal strategies accordingly.

The SEC’s Form 1662 underscores this point. This form, which is provided to all persons requested to supply information voluntarily to the SEC or directed to do so via subpoena, states:

It is the policy of the Commission … that the disposition of any such matter may not, expressly or impliedly, extend to any criminal charges that have been, or may be, brought against any such person or any recommendation with respect thereto. Accordingly, any person involved in an enforcement matter before the Commission who consents, or agrees to consent, to any judgment or order does so solely for the purpose of resolving the claims against him in that investigative, civil, or administrative matter and not for the purpose of resolving any criminal charges that have been, or might be, brought against him.

The disposition of an SEC proceeding also does not prevent the SEC from sharing any information it has accumulated with criminal authorities. Instead, as Form 1662 warns, the SEC “often makes its files available to other governmental agencies, particularly United States Attorneys and state prosecutors” and there is “a likelihood” that the SEC will provide this information confidentially to these agencies “where appropriate.”

SEC Announces Record Number of Enforcement Actions Filed in FY 2016

On October 11, 2016, the SEC announced its enforcement results for fiscal year 2016, which ended on September 30th. Press Release No. 2016-212. In total, the SEC continued its trend of increased enforcement activity by filing 868 enforcement actions, a new single-year high, which included “a record 548 standalone or independent enforcement actions” and “judgments and orders totaling more than $4 billion in disgorgement and penalties.” In comparison, the SEC filed 807 enforcement actions (507 standalone or independent actions) in fiscal year 2015, and 755 enforcement actions (413 standalone or independent actions) in fiscal year 2014. Touting its recent successes, SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced in the press release that “[o]ver the last 3 years, we have changed the way we do business on the enforcement front by using new data analytics to uncover fraud, enhancing our ability to litigate tough cases, and expanding the playbook bringing novel and significant actions to better protect investors and our markets.”

This past fiscal year marked new highs for the SEC in the number of cases involving investment advisers or investment companies, as well as enforcement actions related to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Other significant actions the SEC highlighted involved “combating financial fraud and enhancing issuer disclosure,” holding “attorneys, accountants and other gatekeepers accountable for failure to comply with professional standards,” “enhancing fairness among market participants,” “rooting out insider trading schemes,” “fighting market manipulation and microcap fraud,” “halting international and affinity-based investment frauds,” “policing the public finance markets,” and “cracking down on misconduct involving complex financial instruments.”

Under the whistleblower program, the SEC this past year awarded a record $57 million to 13 whistleblowers, brought the first standalone action for retaliation against a whistleblower, and charged multiple companies for Rule 21F-17 violations, which prohibits any action impeding an individual from communicating directly with Commission staff about possible securities laws violations.

In addition, the SEC announced victories in five federal jury or bench trials this year, including its first ever victory “against a municipality and one of its officers for violations of the federal securities laws.”

Update: IRS, SEC, and Courts Diverge on Nature of Disgorgement

We previously wrote about decisions in SEC v. Graham from the Eleventh Circuit,  __ F.3d __, No. 14-13562, 2016 WL 3033605 (11th Cir. May 26, 2016), and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, 21 F. Supp. 3d 1300 (S.D. Fla. 2014), considering whether disgorgement claims and other remedies were subject to five-year statute of limitations on actions “for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture” codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2462. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court that the SEC’s disgorgement claims were time-barred, holding that “disgorgement” is synonymous with the plain meaning of “forfeiture” as it is used in the statute.

On May 6, 2016—shortly before the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling in Graham—the IRS published non-precedential Chief Counsel Advice (“CCA”) on whether Internal Revenue Code Section 162(f) bars business expense deductions for disgorgement paid to the SEC of profits stemming from alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). The disgorgement payments were part of a consent agreement between the SEC and the taxpayer, whose subsidiary allegedly falsified accounting records in order to conceal gifts it made to officials of a foreign government in exchange for business benefits. The taxpayer paid additional penalties for which it specifically agreed it would not seek a tax deduction in a parallel agreement with the DOJ relating to the criminal case against taxpayer’s subsidiary. The IRS concluded that the taxpayer’s disgorgement payments were not deductible business expenses under § 162(f), which prohibits deduction of any “fine or similar penalty paid to a government for the violation of any law” as a business expense.

As explained in the CCA, § 162(f) has been interpreted to bar deductions of civil penalties where they are “imposed for purposes of enforcing the law and as punishment,” but to allow deduction of civil penalties if “imposed to encourage prompt compliance with a requirement of the law”—for example, “late filing charges or other interest charges”—or “as a remedial measure to compensate another party.”  Emphasizing that disgorgement in securities cases has deterrent aims, is a discretionary remedy, and might be required even if there is no injured party or in amounts exceeding actual losses, the IRS determined that whether disgorgement is primarily punitive or primarily compensatory for the purpose§ 162(f) is a fact-specific inquiry. Additionally, disgorgement imposed as a “discretionary equitable remedy” or where the proceeds are used to compensate victims might still be primarily punitive if it resembles forfeiture, which remains non-deductible even when used to compensate victims. With respect to the FCPA disgorgement the taxpayer had made to the SEC, the IRS concluded that its purpose was primarily punitive, and therefore it could not be deducted, because there was no evidence that it was meant to compensate the government or some other party for loss.

The SEC, the IRS, and the Eleventh Circuit have thus articulated three distinct characterizations of disgorgement. To avoid the limitations period of § 2462, the SEC’s position, adopted by the D.C. Circuit in Johnson v. SEC, 87 F.3d 484 (D.C. Cir. 1996), has been that disgorgement is a non-punitive equitable remedy. In the IRS’s view, disgorgement to the SEC may—but perhaps does not always—have a punitive purpose that bars tax deduction. The Eleventh Circuit has equated the statutory definitions of disgorgement and forfeiture, without commenting on whether disgorgement to the SEC is a “penalty.”

Profits Do Not Always Equal Disgorgement

Judge Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York recently rejected the SEC’s attempt to seek disgorgement of almost $500,000,000 from Samuel Wyly and Donald R. Miller Jr., the Independent Executor of the Will and Estate of Charles J. Wyly Jr. (collectively, “defendants”). According to the SEC, this amount represented the total profit that the defendants gained from their illegal conduct, which included securities fraud in violation of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and failure to make certain disclosures in violation of Sections 13(d), 14(a), and 16(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

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