On December 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned, and further, dismissed two of the DOJ’s insider trading convictions. United States of America v. Newman and Chiasson, Nos. 13-1837-cr(L), 13-1917-cr(con) (2nd Cir. Dec. 10, 2014). In a 28-page decision, the Court noted “erroneous” jury instruction, the Government’s lack of evidence that personal benefit was received by the alleged insiders, and the inability to prove the alleged insiders actually knew that they were trading on inside information. The ruling now narrows the scope of what constitutes insider trading and will likely impact other pending insider-trading cases. It is anticipated that the Government will appeal the Court’s decision.
On December 22, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Sally Yates as the Deputy Attorney General. Since 2010, Yates has served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. If confirmed, Yates would be second-highest ranking official at the DOJ.
On December 4, Assistant AG Leslie Caldwell delivered remarks at the Cybercrime 2020 Symposium regarding the DOJ’s recent efforts to fight cybercrime. Specifically, Caldwell noted the DOJ’s Criminal Division is (i) increasing its international law enforcement operations; and (ii) creating a committed Cybersecurity Unit to address the growing threat of cybercrime. The Cybersecurity Unit will take on the responsibility of enhancing the DOJ’s public and private security efforts, most notably by working with law enforcement to ensure that “legislation is shaped to most effectively protect our nation’s computer networks and individual victims from cyber attacks.”
On November 19, the DOJ issued a press release announcing charges against six employees of a Georgia-based debt collection company for allegedly running a $4.1 million dollar debt collection scam. According to the press release, from approximately 2009 to May 2014, the accused employees allegedly falsely represented themselves as affiliated with various law enforcement agencies, and made a variety of false statements to consumers in an attempt to coerce them into making payments to the debt collection company. The action appears to be the first case in which multiple federal agencies – U.S. Attorneys’ Office, CFPB, FBI, and the FTC – have taken a coordinated action against a debt collector. The complaint was filed in the Southern District of New York.
On November 3, a medical company agreed to pay a total of $55 million to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. According to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order, subsidiaries of the bio-medical instrument manufacturer paid $7.5 million in bribes in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam from 2005 to 2010 in order to win business in violation of Section 30A of the FCPA, which resulted in $35 million in improper profits for the company. Some of the payments were disguised as commissions to foreign agents, in situations where the “agents had no employees and no capacity to perform the purported services for [a medical company].” The company also allegedly had an “atmosphere of secrecy.” The company self-disclosed the violations to the government in 2010. Read more…
Just a month after announcing its internal investigation of possible FCPA violations, news reports indicate that a major cable company’s review will be completed or substantially completed by the first quarter of 2015. The company also announced that it “plans to exit all of its Asia Pacific and African manufacturing operations,” although it did not link the exit – which affects nine plants in Asia and five plants in Africa, and approximately 17% of its total sales – to its FCPA investigation.
In September, the Kentucky-based cable manufacturer announced that it was investigating its payment practices with respect to employees of public utility companies in Angola, Thailand, India and Portugal due to possible FCPA concerns. News reports indicate that, to date, the company has spent millions on the review, which has included a review of over 450,000 documents and interviews of over 20 individuals. The company also disclosed that it was cooperating with investigations by the DOJ and SEC.
On September 25, Attorney General Holder announced his plan to leave the DOJ. Holder returned to the DOJ in February of 2009 as the Attorney General, after having previously worked as a corruption prosecutor and as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. Holder intends to remain at the DOJ until the confirmation of his successor.
On September 17, Attorney General Holder commented on the DOJ’s efforts to pursue criminal activity against corporate financial fraud. Specifically, Holder argued for Congress to modify the FIRREA whistleblower provision by increasing the $1.6 million cap on awards, possibly to False Claims Act levels, so that there is greater “individual cooperation.” Currently, under the False Claims Act, an individual whistleblower can receive up to 30 percent of a sanction. In addition to Holder’s focus on increasing the award whistleblowers are given, he referenced the significance the DOJ places on investigating the individual executives at financial firms for criminal activity, stating that the department “recognizes the inherent value of bringing enforcement actions against individuals, as opposed to simply the companies that employ them.” Holder identified the following three main reasons for its continued efforts in pursuing both the individuals and the companies: (i) accountability – the department is focused on identifying the “decision-makers at the company who ought to be held responsible” for corporate misconduct; (ii) fairness – the company should not solely endure the punishment when “the misconduct is the work of a known bad actor, or a handful of known bad actors”; and (iii) the deterrent effect – while an individual person found guilty of a fraud crime will likely go to prison, there are few things that discourage a company from performing illegal activity.
On September 3, the DOJ announced that Associate Attorney General Tony West will depart the agency on September 15, 2014. The announcement came a year after Mr. West was confirmed for the position, though he held the position in an “acting” capacity since March 2012. As Associate Attorney General, Mr. West has advised and assisted the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General in formulating and implementing departmental policies and programs related to a broad range of issues, including civil litigation, federal and local law enforcement, and public safety. Prior to March 2012, Mr. West served as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division – the largest litigating division at the DOJ – where he emphasized the Civil Division’s authority to bring civil and criminal actions to enforce the nation’s consumer protection laws, and served in various positions on the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.
On August 21, the DOJ announced that a large financial institution agreed to resolve federal and state mortgage-related claims through what the DOJ characterized as the largest ever civil settlement with a single entity. The agreement actually resolves numerous federal and state investigations related to various alleged practices conducted by the institution and certain former and current subsidiaries that it acquired during the financial crisis. Such allegations relate to the packaging, marketing, sale, arrangement, structuring, and issuance of RMBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as well as the underwriting and origination of mortgage loans. In total, the institution agreed to pay $9.65 billion in penalties and fines and provide $7 billion in relief to borrowers. Of the more than $9 billion in civil payments, $5 billion resolves several DOJ investigations related to RMBS and CDOs under FIRREA, as well as the allegedly fraudulent origination of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA. The origination investigations centered on alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the selling of, or seeking of government insurance for, loans alleged to be defective. Other penalty payments resolve RMBS-related claims by the SEC, the FDIC, and several states. In total, the state participants will receive nearly $1 billion, with California and New York obtaining the largest amounts at $300 million each. An independent monitor will be appointed to oversee the borrower relief provisions, which will require the institution to: (i) offer principal reduction loan modifications; (ii) make loans to “credit worthy borrowers struggling to obtain a loan”; (iii) make donations to certain communities harmed during the financial crisis; and (iv) provide financing for affordable rental housing. The institution also agreed to provide funding to defray any tax liability that will be incurred by borrowers who receive certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.
On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.
On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.
On July 3, the DOJ announced the resolution of a multi-agency criminal investigation into the way a large mortgage company administered the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). According to a Restitution and Remediation Agreement released by the company’s parent bank, the company agreed to pay up to $320 million to resolve allegations that it made misrepresentations and omissions about (i) how long it would take to make HAMP qualification decisions; (ii) the duration of HAMP trial periods; and (iii) how borrowers would be treated during those trial periods. In exchange for the monetary payments and other corrective actions by the company, the government agreed not to prosecute the company for crimes related to the alleged conduct. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, as well as the FHFA Inspector General—which has authority to oversee Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s HAMP programs—and the Special Inspector General for TARP—which has responsibility for the Treasury Department HAMP program and jurisdiction over financial institutions that received TARP funds. This criminal action comes in the wake of a DOJ Inspector General report that was critical of the Justice Department’s mortgage fraud enforcement efforts, and which numerous members of Congress used to push DOJ to more vigorously pursue alleged mortgage-related violations. In announcing the action, the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that other HAMP-related investigations are under way, and that more cases may be coming.
On July 1, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a large bank agreed to pay $10 million to resolve allegations that prior to 2011 it violated the False Claims Act and FIRREA by failing to oversee the reasonableness of foreclosure-related charges it submitted to the FHA and Fannie Mae for reimbursement, contrary to program requirements and the bank’s certifications that it had done so. The government intervened in a whistleblower suit claiming that, notwithstanding FHA program requirements and the bank’s annual FHA certifications, prior to 2011, the bank failed to create or maintain an adequate FHA quality control program to review the fees and charges submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to FHA for reimbursement. The government also claimed that the bank failed to create or maintain Fannie Mae audit and control systems sufficient to ensure that the fees and expenses submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to Fannie Mae for reimbursement, were reasonable, customary, or necessary. In addition to the monetary settlement, the bank was required to admit to the allegations and agreed to remain compliant with all rules applicable to servicers of mortgage loans insured by FHA and to servicers of loans held or securitized by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On June 23, the DOJ released a transcript of a message delivered by Attorney General Eric Holder in which he pledged to continue investigations of financial institutions “that knowingly facilitate consumer scams, or that willfully look the other way in processing such fraudulent transactions.” These investigations are part of the DOJ’s “Operation Choke Point,” which has faced criticism from financial institutions and their advocates on Capitol Hill, and which payday lenders recently filed suit to halt. Opponents of the operation assert that the DOJ investigations, combined with guidance from prudential regulators, are targeting lawful businesses and cutting off their access to the financial system. In his remarks, the AG promised that the DOJ will not target “businesses operating within the bounds of the law,” but vowed to continue to pursue “a range of investigations into banks that illegally enable businesses to siphon billions of dollars from consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for significant fees.” Mr. Holder stated that he expects the DOJ to resolve some of these investigations in the coming months.