On September 26, the SEC amended its rules to delegate authority to its CFO, Kenneth Johnson, to request that the Treasury Secretary invest a portion of the SEC’s Investor Protection Fund. The fund, comprised of over $439 million as of FY 2013, is used to award whistleblowers and fund certain IG activities. Johnson’s discretion includes determining what portion of the Fund’s monies are not required to meet current needs and thus available for investment as well as which investment maturities are most suitable. The SEC anticipates this amendment, effective September 29, 2014, will “streamline” its operations.
This month, FINRA issued guidance notice 14-40 to reminds firms that “it is a violation of FINRA Rule 2010 (Standards of Commercial Honor and Principles of Trade) to include confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements or any other documents, including confidentiality stipulations made during a FINRA arbitration proceeding, that prohibit or restrict a customer or any other person from communicating with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), FINRA, or any federal or state regulatory authority regarding a possible securities law violation.” Additionally, the notice addresses FINRA’s Code of Arbitration Procedure for Customer Disputes, emphasizing that the parties involved in the arbitration discovery process must “cooperate with each other to the fullest extent practicable in the voluntary exchange of documents and information to expedite the arbitration process.” FINRA further specifies that “stipulations between the parties or confidentiality orders issued by an arbitrator as part of the discovery process regarding the non-disclosure of the documents in question outside the arbitration of the particular case do not restrict or prohibit the disclosure of the documents to the SEC, FINRA, any other self-regulatory organization, or any other state or federal regulatory authority.”
On September 22, the SEC announced that it expects to award more than $30 million to a whistleblower who provided key information in connection with an ongoing fraud enforcement action. The award will be the largest to date for the SEC’s whistleblower program and the fourth award to a whistleblower living overseas. The program offers rewards to whistleblowers who provide high-quality, original information that results in an SEC enforcement action with sanctions exceeding $1 million. Awards are funded by an investor protection fund established by Congress and financed by sanctions imposed on securities law violators. Awards can range from ten to thirty percent of the money collected from the enforcement action.
On September 24, the SEC issued a final rule adopting significant revisions to regulations governing the disclosure, reporting, registration and the offering process for asset-backed securities (“ABS”). The revised rules aim to increase investor protection in the ABS market by making it easier for investors to review and analyze the credit risk of ABS, and limit reliance on the ratings provided by credit agencies. The rule mandates that issuers provide standardized asset-level disclosures for ABS backed by residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, auto loans, auto leases, and debt securities at the time of the offering and on an ongoing basis. The rule also modifies asset-level disclosures for RMBS and securities backed by auto loans and leases in order to reduce potential privacy risks to obligors. The rule requires ABS issuers using a shelf registration statement to file a preliminary prospectus at least three business days before the first sale of securities in the offering. Further, the regulations revise the eligibility requirements for ABS shelf offerings and require additional changes to the procedures and forms related to shelf offerings. Specifically, the rules adopt four transaction requirements for ABS shelf eligibility (certification by the CEO, asset review provision, dispute resolution provision, and disclosure of investors’ requests to communicate) and remove the prior investment-grade rating requirement in order to reduce undue reliance on credit ratings. The rule will become effective on November 24, 2014.
Eastern District Court Of Texas Enjoins Bitcoin Investment Scheme And Orders Founder To Pay Civil Penalty
On September 18, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the defendant’s bitcoin investment program was a Ponzi scheme, and enjoined the founder and the investment program from violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Sections 5 and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. S.E.C. v. Shavers, No. 4:13-CV-416 (E.D. Tex. Sep. 18, 2014). The court ruled that the founder knowingly and intentionally operated the bitcoin investment program as a sham and Ponzi scheme by repeatedly making misrepresentations, both to investors and potential investors alike, concerning: (i) the use of their bitcoins; (ii) how he planned to generate the promised returns; and (iii) the safety of the investments. The founder used new bitcoins received from investors to make payments on outstanding bitcoin investments, and diverted investors’ bitcoins for his own personal use. The court granted Plaintiff’s uncontested motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for default judgment, and, in addition to the injunctions, ordered Defendants jointly and severally liable for disgorgement of approximately $40 million in profits, and ordered each Defendant to pay civil penalties in the amount of $150,000.
On August 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the Bitcoin investments at issue are “investment contracts” and “securities” within the meaning of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Exchange Act of 1934. S.E.C. v. Shavers, et al., No. 4:13-CV-416, (E.D. Tex. Aug. 26, 2014). The Court found that the Bitcoin investments in the case satisfy the “investment of money” prong established by the Supreme Court in S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey & Co., 328 U.S. 293, 298-99 (1946), because Bitcoin has a measure of value, can be used as a form of payment, and is used as a method of exchange. The essence of an investment contract, the court reasoned, was the contribution of an exchange of value, rather than “money” in the narrow sense of legal tender only. The SEC alleged that the Defendants made a number of solicitations aimed at enticing lenders to invest in Bitcoin-related investment opportunities. The Court granted the Defendants’ motion to reconsider its prior decision on subject-matter jurisdiction, but denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
On August 27, the SEC adopted revisions to rules governing the disclosure, reporting and offering process for asset-backed securities (ABS) and adopted new requirements for credit rating agencies registered with the SEC to increase governance controls, enhance transparency, and increase credit rating agency accountability. The adopted ABS reforms will make it easier for investors to review and analyze the credit risk of ABS. The revised ABS rules will (i) require issuers to provide standardized asset-level disclosures for ABS backed by residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, auto loans, auto leases, and debt securities; (ii) provide investors with an additional three days to analyze a preliminary prospectus prior to the first sale of securities in the offering; (iii) revise the eligibility requirements for ABS shelf offerings and require additional changes to the procedures and forms related to shelf offerings; and (iv) revise reporting requirements to include expanded and additional information in the prospectus disclosure for ABS. The new rules adopted for credit rating agencies registered with the SEC require these agencies to (i) consider certain identified factors with respect to establishing, maintaining, and enforcing an internal control structure and file an annual report to the SEC regarding the agency’s internal control structure; (ii) implement conflict of interest controls to prevent inappropriate considerations from affecting a credit agency’s production of credit ratings; (iii) require public disclosure of credit rating performance statistics and histories; (iv) implement procedures to protect the credibility and transparency of rating methodologies, including disclosure requirements regarding the same; and (v) establish standards to ensure that credit analysts meet certain training, experience, and competence thresholds.
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 August 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s holding that the Dodd-Frank Act’s antiretaliation provision does not apply extraterritorially. Liu Meng-Lin v. Siemens AG, No. 13-4385, 2014 WL 3953672 (2nd Cir. Aug. 14, 2014). A foreign worker was allegedly fired by his foreign employer for internally reporting violations of U.S. anti-corruption rules, which he claimed violated the antiretaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act. This provision prohibits an employer from firing or otherwise discriminating against any employee who makes a disclosure that is required or protected under Sarbanes-Oxley or any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the SEC’s jurisdiction. The court first determined that the facts alleged in the complaint revealed “essentially no contact with the United States” and rejected an argument that the foreign company voluntarily subjected itself to U.S. securities laws by listing its securities on the New York Stock Exchange. The court also held that, given the longstanding presumption against extraterritoriality and the absence of any “explicit statutory evidence that Congress meant for the provision to apply extraterritorially,” the cited provision does not apply to purely foreign-based claims.
SDNY Judge Approves RMBS Consent Judgment But Questions Second Circuit’s Standard For Reviewing Agency Consent Judgments
On August 5, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff approved a consent judgment between the SEC and a financial institution to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-7387, 2014 WL 3827497 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2014). Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s earlier decision to reject the proposed settlement, holding that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” On remand, Judge Rakoff approved the consent judgment stating that based on the underlying record, “the Court cannot say that the proposed Consent Judgment is procedurally improper or in any material respect fails to comport with the very modest standard imposed by the Court of Appeals.” Judge Rakoff noted his concern, however, that “as a result of the Court of Appeals decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary’s contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever.”
On July 23, FINRA announced that the SEC approved a new rule prohibiting FINRA-supervised firms and registered representatives from conditioning settlement of a customer dispute on—or otherwise compensating a customer for—the customer’s agreement to consent to, or not to oppose, the firm’s or representative’s request to expunge such information from the Central Registration Depository (CRD) system. The CRD system is an online registration and licensing system for the securities industry, which contains information regarding members and registered representatives, such as personal information, registration, and employment history, as well as disclosure information including criminal matters, regulatory and disciplinary actions, civil judicial actions, and information relating to customer complaints and disputes. The information FINRA makes public through BrokerCheck is derived from CRD. Brokers who wish to have a customer dispute removed from the CRD system and, thereby, from BrokerCheck, must obtain a court order confirming an arbitration award recommending expungement relief. FINRA will announce the effective date of the new rule in a regulatory notice to be published shortly.
On July 8, FINRA released a targeted examination letter it sent to 10 firms to assess their compliance with requirements related to order routing and execution quality of customer orders in exchange listed stocks during the period of January 1, 2014 to present. The letters include numerous requests for information, including requests that each firm explain: (i) how it uses reasonable diligence to ascertain the best market for orders that the firm routes for execution to an exchange, or broker-dealer, so that the resultant price is as favorable as possible for its customer under prevailing market conditions; (ii) how the firm’s exchange order-routing decisions are made for customer non-marketable, customer market, and marketable limit orders; and (iii) how the firm reviews the execution quality of such orders. The letters also include requests related to each firm’s use of the “Smart Order Router.”
On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s decision to reject a proposed settlement between the SEC and a financial institution in a securities fraud suit. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227, 2014 WL 2486793 (2d Cir, Jun. 6, 2014). In November 2011, the SEC and the financial institution entered into a consent judgment to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. Consistent with the SEC consent judgment convention at the time, the institution did not admit or deny any of the allegations as part of the agreement. Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York rejected the agreement and held that because the parties agreed to settle without the institution having to admit or deny any of the underlying factual allegations, the settlement would deprive the public “of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance,” and the court lacked evidence sufficient to determine whether the agreement was in the public interest. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” The court held that in evaluating whether an SEC consent decree is “fair and reasonable” one must review (i) the basic legality of the decree; (ii) whether the terms are clear; (iii) whether the decree resolves the actual claims in the complaint; and (iv) whether the decree is “tainted by improper collusion or corruption.” The court also ruled that the district court abused its discretion by requiring that the agreement establish the “truth” of the allegations, explaining that trials are meant to determine truth, while consent decrees are about “pragmatism.” Finally, the court held that the district court abused its discretion to the extent that it withheld approval of the settlement because it believes the SEC failed to bring the proper charges, which is the exclusive right of the SEC to decide.
On May 19, the Senate Banking Committee’s chairman and ranking member, Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), sent a letter to the leaders of the Treasury Department, the SEC, the CFTC, the OCC, the FDIC, and the Federal Reserve Board regarding recent developments in the use of virtual currencies and their interaction with the global payment system. The Senators ask the regulators a series of questions related to the role of virtual currencies in the U.S. banking system, payment system, and trading markets, and the current role of federal regulators in developing local, national, and international enforcement policies related to virtual currencies. The Senators also seek the agencies’ expectations on virtual currency firms’ BSA compliance, and ask whether an enhanced regulatory framework for virtual currencies is needed.
On April 14, the DOJ and the SEC announced additional charges in a previously announced case against employees of a U.S. broker-dealer related to an alleged “massive international bribery scheme.” The DOJ announced the arrest of the CEO and a managing partner of the New York-based U.S. broker-dealer on felony charges arising from an alleged conspiracy to pay bribes to a senior official in Venezuela’s state economic development bank in exchange for the official directing financial trading business to the broker-dealer. The SEC, whose routine compliance examination detected the allegedly illegal conduct, announced parallel civil charges against the same two executives. Broker-dealer employees charged earlier in the case pleaded guilty last August for conspiring to violate the FCPA, the Travel Act, and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, relating, among other things, to the scheme involving bribe payments. In November 2013, the Venezuelan bank senior official pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court for conspiring to violate the Travel Act and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, for her role in the scheme.