SEC Settles Charges of Auditor Independence Violations for $8 Million

The SEC announced settlements with an auditing firm (the “Firm”) and one of its partners relating to violations of certain auditor independence rules involving nineteen audit engagements with fifteen SEC-registrant issuers.

More specifically, the SEC found the Firm and its partner violated the Commission’s and Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s (“PCAOB”) auditor independence rules. The alleged conduct involved performing prohibited non-audit services, including exercising decision-making authority in the design and implementation of software relating to one of its issuer client’s financial reporting as well as engaging in management functions for the company. The partner was responsible for supervising the performance of the prohibited non-audit services. Additionally, the SEC charged additional PCAOB-rule violations for failing to notify the clients’ audit committees about the non-audit services. The SEC described these failures as “mischaracterized non-audit services” despite the services involving financial software “that were planned to be implemented in a subsequent audit period and providing feedback to management on those systems—areas outside the realm of audit work.” The partner was also charged with providing material, non-public information concerning an issuer to a software company without the issuer’s consent.

Continue reading “SEC Settles Charges of Auditor Independence Violations for $8 Million”

Broker Pays $2.5 Million Fine for Using Market Volatility to Hide Markups Yielding Unearned Commissions

Last week, Louis Capital Markets, L.P. (“LCM”) agreed to disgorge $2.5 million in settlement of charges that it charged false execution prices to its customers in order to generate secret commissions.

LCM executed orders to purchase and sell securities for its clients, without holding any securities in its own account and thus bore no market risk, i.e., riskless principal trades. It purported to generate profits by charging customers small commissions, typically between $0.01 and $0.03 per share. LCM, however, unbeknownst to customers, inflated those commissions, by embedding undisclosed markups and markdowns into reported execution prices. LCM provided those false execution prices—either lower sales prices or higher purchase prices than LCM actually obtained in the market—to its customers. Critically, LCM did not engage in this deceptive behavior for every trade, rather “LCM opportunistically added markups/markdowns to trades at times when customers were unlikely to detect them, for example, during periods of market volatility.” (Order ¶ 13.) By engaging in these acts, LCM “unlawfully obtained millions of dollars from its customers.” (Order at 2.)

Without admitting or denying the findings, LCM agreed disgorge $2.5 million and to cease-and-desist violating Section 15(c)(1), which prohibits fraudulent conduct by broker-dealers. The SEC noted that while the conduct would support a civil penalty, it considered LCM’s financial status and accepted LCM’s offer that did not include one. Interestingly, LCM’s customers were “primarily large foreign institutions and foreign banks,” demonstrating the SEC’s commitment to eradicate fraud regardless of sophistication of investors.

Private Equity Fund Advisers Agree to Settle Charges of Improperly Disclosing Acceleration of Monitoring Fees and Improperly Supervising Expense Reimbursement Practices

In a recent action, the SEC demonstrated its continuing focus on private equity fund advisers’ fees. On August 23, 2016, Apollo Management V, LP, Apollo Management VI, LP, Apollo Management VII, LP, and Apollo Commodities Management, LP (collectively, “Apollo”), agreed to settle charges brought by the SEC for “misleading fund investors about fees and a loan agreement and failing to supervise a senior partner who charged personal expenses to the funds” in violation of Sections 206 and 203 of the Advisers Act. Press Release No. 2016-165.

According to the SEC Order, Apollo advises a number of private equity funds that own multiple portfolio companies. Like most private equity fund advisers, Apollo charges annual management fees and certain other fees to the limited partners in its private equity funds and charges monitoring fees to certain portfolio companies under separate monitoring agreements. Release No. 4493. Investors benefit from the monitoring fees in that a certain percentage of the monitoring fees are used to offset a portion of the annual management fees. The SEC found that the monitoring agreements allowed Apollo, upon the triggering of certain events, to terminate the agreement and accelerate the remaining years of the monitoring fees to be collected in a present value lump sum termination payment. Triggering events included the private sale or IPO of a portfolio company. The SEC found that the accelerated fees created a conflict of interest for the adviser and noted that while the accelerated monitoring fees reduced annual management fees paid by the funds, the accelerated payments reduced the portfolio companies’ value prior to their sale or IPO, thereby “reducing the amounts available for distribution to the” the funds’ investors. The SEC found that Apollo did not disclose to the limited partners “its practice of accelerating monitoring fees until after Apollo had taken accelerated fees.” Id.

In addition, the SEC found that in June 2008, the general partner of one of Apollo’s funds entered into a loan agreement between the fund and four parallel funds in which the parallel funds loaned an amount to fund equaling the carried interest due to the fund from the recapitalization of two portfolio companies owned by the parallel funds. Until the loan was extinguished, taxes owed by the general partner on the carried interest were deferred and the general partner was required to pay accrued interest to the parallel funds. While the parallel funds’ financial statements disclosed the interest, Apollo’s failure to disclose that the accrued interest would be allocated solely to the account of the general partner was determined to be materially misleading.

The SEC further found that a former Apollo senior partner, on two occasions, improperly charged personal expenses to Apollo-advised funds and the funds’ portfolio companies, and in some instances, fabricated information to conceal his conduct. Upon discovery of the partner’s conduct, Apollo orally reprimanded the partner but did not take any other remedial or disciplinary steps.

Finally, according to the SEC, Apollo also failed to adopt and implement written policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violations of the Advisers Act arising from the undisclosed receipt of accelerated monitoring fees and failed to implement its policies and procedure concerning employees’ reimbursement of expenses.

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Apollo agreed to pay $40,254,552, consisting of a disgorgement of $37,527,000 and prejudgment interest of $2,727,552. In addition, the SEC assessed a $12.5 million civil penalty,  stating that the penalty is not higher due to Apollo’s cooperation during the investigation and related enforcement action. The SEC reserved the right to increase the penalty should it be discovered that Apollo knowingly provided false or misleading information or materials to the staff during the course of its investigation.

Registered Investment Advisor Agrees to Settle Charges of Failing to Clearly Disclose Transaction Costs Beyond “Wrap Fees” to Investors

On July 14, 2016, RiverFront Investment Group, LLC (“RiverFront”) agreed to settle charges brought by the SEC for failing to “properly prepare clients for additional transaction costs beyond the ‘wrap fees’ they pay to cover the cost of several services bundles together.” Press Release No. 2016-143. According to the SEC, participants in wrap fee programs usually pay an annual fee “which is intended to cover the cost of several services ‘wrapped’ together, such as custody, trade execution, portfolio management, and back office services.” Release No. 4453. The SEC found that under these wrap programs, a sponsoring firm will offer clients a selection of third-party managers, referred to as subadvisors, to have discretion over the clients’ investment decisions. When subadvisors execute trades on behalf of clients through a sponsor-designated broker-dealer, the transaction costs associated with the trades are included in the wrap fee. On the other hand, if a subadvisor sends a trade to a non-designated broker-dealer, a practice known as “trading away,” clients incur additional transaction costs beyond the wrap fee. Continue reading “Registered Investment Advisor Agrees to Settle Charges of Failing to Clearly Disclose Transaction Costs Beyond “Wrap Fees” to Investors”

Third-Party Service Provider to Private Equity Funds Pays More Than $350,000 for Gatekeeping Failures

On June 16, 2016, Apex Fund Services (US), Inc., settled charges that it ignored clear indications of fraud while keeping records and preparing financial statements and investment account statements for private funds managed by EquityStar Capital Management, LLC, and ClearPath Wealth Management, LLC, each of which has previously been charged with fraud in SEC enforcement actions. Press Release 2016-120. The settlement highlights the SEC’s focus on gatekeepers and the importance of gatekeepers monitoring red flags, especially when their role includes providing financial information to investors.

With respect to EquityStar, Apex settled charges that it made materially false and misleading statements to investors when it improperly accounted for undisclosed withdrawals from funds (made by EquityStar and manager Steven Zoernack) as receivables even when Apex possessed evidence that neither EquityStar nor Zoernack were willing or able to repay the withdrawals, which totaled over $1 million. After Zoernack stated his intent to repay an initial withdrawal, Zoernack continued to make withdrawals (without making repayments) that Apex repeatedly treated as “receivables,” rather than withdrawals by Zoernack, in the Net Asset Value (“NAV”) reports. Eventually, the “receivables” accounted for nearly 54% of the NAV of one fund and more than 26% of another fund. During this time, Apex learned that Zoernack had previously been convicted for wire fraud. According to the SEC, Apex repeatedly asked Zoernack to make disclosures about the withdrawals that he did not make. The SEC also found Apex ultimately determined that Zoernack would not be able to repay them. Nevertheless, Apex continued to report materially inaccurate NAVs. Release No. 4429.

ClearPath was charged with securities fraud violations relating to a misappropriation scheme last year in the District of Rhode Island. With respect to ClearPath, the SEC found Apex (i) “failed to act appropriately after detecting undisclosed brokerage and bank accounts, undisclosed margin and loan agreements, and inter-series and inter-fund transfers made in violation of the fund offering documents”; (ii) failed to correct prior financial reports and continued to issue “materially false reports and statements” to ClearPath and an independent auditor; and (iii) used those false reports in communication financial performance to investors. Release No. 4428.

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Apex agreed to retain an independent consultant to conduct a review of Apex’s policies and procedures and recommend corrective measures. Additionally, Apex will pay a total of $352,449, which includes (i) disgorgement of $89,050, plus $7,786 in interest and a $75,000 penalty for its actions with respect to EquityStar; and (ii) disgorgement of $96,800, plus $8,813 in interest and a $75,000 penalty for its actions with respect to ClearPath.

SEC Files First Antiretaliation Enforcement Case Against Hedge Fund Advisory Firm

In a first of its kind case, the SEC last week charged an investment adviser to a hedge fund with, among other things, retaliating against an employee who reported allegedly illegal trading activity to the agency. The SEC exercised its authority under a Commission rule adopted in 2011 under the Dodd-Frank Act, which permits enforcement actions based on retaliation against whistleblowers.

Under the Exchange Act, employers may not “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, directly or indirectly, or in any other manner discriminate against, a whistleblower in the terms and conditions of employment because of any lawful act done by the whistleblower.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(A). The Act also provides that the Commission “shall pay an award or awards to 1 or more whistleblowers who voluntarily provided original information to the Commission that led to the successful enforcement of the covered judicial or administrative action, or related action, in an aggregate amount equal to (A) not less than 10 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions; and (B) not more than 30 percent, in total, of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions.” Id. § 78u-6(b)(1).

The alleged retaliation at issue centered on the investment adviser’s former head trader, who reported allegedly improper principal transactions to the SEC under the SEC’s Bounty Program. According to the SEC, the investment adviser engaged in trades with an affiliated broker-dealer on behalf of one of its hedge fund clients. The SEC alleged that the investment adviser’s owner had a conflicted role as owner of the brokerage firm while subsequently advising the hedge fund client. In an attempt to satisfy written disclosure and consent requirements, the investment adviser formed a conflicts committee to review the transactions, which consisted of the investment adviser’s CFO and chief compliance officer. The SEC alleges that the conflicts committee was also conflicted because the two-person committee reported to the investment adviser’s owner and because the investment adviser’s CFO also served as CFO of the investment adviser’s affiliated broker-dealer. As a result of this conflict, the SEC contended the investment adviser did not provide effective written disclosure to its hedge fund client, and it did not obtain consent to engage in the transactions.

According to the SEC Order, the trader subsequently informed the owner of the investment adviser that he had reported these potential securities law violations to the SEC. After the company learned of the whistleblower’s submission, it allegedly engaged in a series of retaliatory actions to strip the trader of his responsibilities. Approximately one month after doing so, the whistleblower resigned citing constructive discharge. Of note, the former trader filed a lawsuit against the investment adviser, its owner, and its affiliated broker-dealer under § 78u-6(h)(1)(B), which permits whistleblowers to bring enforcement actions, alleging unlawful retaliation, but the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in December 2012. It is not clear why the lawsuit was dismissed or whether the dismissal was related to a settlement.

In settling the matter with the SEC, the investment adviser neither admitted nor denied the charges. It agreed to pay $2.2 million, which includes disgorgement of $1.7 million, prejudgment interest of $181,771, and a civil penalty of $300,000. The Order expressly provides that the disgorgement relates to administrative charges relating to the principal transactions. The Order is silent, however, on whether the civil penalty of $300,000 is related to those principal transactions or has something to do with the retaliation claim. The Commission acknowledged in its order that the principal transactions were effected at the prevailing market price and the affiliated broker-dealer did not charge a markup or commission on the transactions. Significantly, the Order does not contain any finding that the funds were harmed by inadequate prices and the fact that the disgorgement relates to administrative charges strongly suggests there was a lack of monetary injury to the funds.

The SEC has authority to award the whistleblower between 10 and 30 percent of the recovery because the tip led to sanctions in excess of $1 million. According to Andrew J. Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, a whistleblower is eligible for a whistleblower award. We have previously pointed out that the SEC intends to vigorously protect whistleblowers by using it authority under Dodd-Frank to bring retaliation claims against employers in a previous post: “Arbitration Agreements and Whistleblower Protections.” This case is proof.

District Court Confirms “Neither Admit Nor Deny” Settlements Applying Citigroup Factors

In March 2013, the SEC requested that Judge Victor Marrero of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York approve consent judgments as to CR Intrinsic and CR Intrinsic Investments, LLC; S.A.C. Capital Advisors, LLC; S.A.C. Capital Associates, LLC; S.A.C. International Equities, LLC; and S.A.C. Select Fund, LLC (the “Relief Defendants”). Each of the proposed judgments was without admitting or denying the allegations of the SEC’s complaint. In April 2013, Judge Marrero issued an Opinion and Order in which he said, “The Court is troubled by these provisions as they permit CR Intrinsic and the Relief Defendants to resolve the serious allegations against hem involving a massive insider trading scheme ‘without admitting or denying the allegations of the Complaint.’” SEC v. CR Intrinsic Investors, LLC, 939 F. Supp. 2d 431, 436 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). Noting that the Second Circuit was then considering an appeal in SEC v. Citigroup Markets, Inc., which might clarify how much discretion the district courts might have in determining whether to approve or reject a consent judgment that contains a clause neither admitting nor denying the allegations in the SEC’s complaint, Judge Marrero conditionally approved the judgments pending resolution of Citigroup.

As explained in our June 6, 2014 post titled “Second Circuit Vacates Judge Rakoff’s Order Refusing to Approve Citigroup “Neither Admit Nor Deny” Settlement“, the Second Circuit recently clarified the proper standard for reviewing consent decrees, and the parties requested the court to approve consent decrees. Applying the standards set forth by the Second Circuit in SEC v. Citigroup Mkts., Inc., ___ F.3d ___, Docket Nos. 11-5227-cv; 11‑5375-cv; 11-5242-cv, 2014 WL 2486793 (2d Cir. June 4, 2014), Judge Marrero approved the judgments as to CR Intrinsic and the Relief Defendants. He, however, noted that the subsequent conviction of Matthew Martoma, a CR Intrinsic employee, and guilty plea by CR Intrinsic “called attention to the importance of more rigorous inquiry by the SEC in its application of ‘neither admit nor deny’ provisions in settlements embodying the exceptional circumstances presented by this action, specifically those where parallel criminal cases track an SEC complaint arising from the same facts.” SEC v. Citigroup Mkts., Inc., 2014 WL 2486793, at *5. It remains to be seen whether Judge Marrero’s “wait-and-see approach” in these situations will gain traction at the SEC, particularly because it could significantly delay settlements in cases where, like Martoma’s, the criminal conviction is appealed.

Second Circuit Vacates Judge Rakoff’s Order Refusing to Approve Citigroup “Neither Admit Nor Deny” Settlement

Today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Judge Rakoff’s order refusing to approve a settlement between the SEC and Citigroup in which Citigroup neither admitted nor denied the agency’s allegations. See SEC v. Citigroup Global Mkts., Inc., Docket Nos. 11-5227-cv; 11‑5375-cv; 11-5242-cv (2d Cir. June 4, 2014). Judge Rakoff took issue with the consent decree, finding that it was not fair, reasonable, adequate, or in the public interest because the public was denied the opportunity to know the truth underlying the allegations of securities fraud. The Circuit Court disagreed, reasoning that the district court abused its discretion by requiring the SEC to “establish the ‘truth’ of the allegations against a settling party as a condition for approving the consent decrees.” Id., slip op. at 21. The court said, “Trials are primarily about the truth. Consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism.” Id.

The court clarified that the proper standard for reviewing a consent decree requires determinations of whether the decree is fair and reasonable and whether the public interest would be disserved. According to the court, district courts assessing consent decrees for fairness and reasonableness should consider (1) the basic legality of the decree; (2) whether the terms of the decree, including its enforcement mechanism, are clear; (3) whether the consent decree reflects a resolution of the actual claims in the complaint; and (4) whether the consent decree is tainted by improper collusion or corruption of some kind. The court jettisoned the “adequacy” requirement, finding it incompatible with the use of consent decrees. In addition, the court made clear that “[t]he job of determining whether the proposed S.E.C. consent decree best serves the public interest . . . rests squarely with the S.E.C., and its decision merits significant deference . . . .” Id., slip op. at 24-25.

The court remanded the case to the district court for consideration of the factual basis for the consent decree under these standards, noting that “[a]bsent a substantial basis in the record for concluding that the proposed consent decree does not meet these requirements, the district court is required to enter the order.” Id., slip op. at 19.

The court cautioned that the SEC must be “willing to assure the court that the settlement proposed is fair and reasonable” when it seeks the court’s imprimatur of consent decrees. Id., slip op. at 27. The court pointed out, however, that the SEC has the ability to employ its own remedies—like administrative proceedings—that do not require court involvement. It remains to be seen whether the SEC will make more use of administrative proceedings in an effort to avoid judicial scrutiny in settled cases. During the pendency of the Citibank ruling, the SEC did not shy away from filing significant settled cases such as the JP Morgan internal controls matter in federal court. Moreover, in light of the standard articulated by the Second Circuit, it would seem that both the SEC and settling defendants should have less concern about courts second-guessing or questioning whether proposed settlements serve the public interest.