On January 27, the SEC announced that it will host a roundtable to discuss ways to improve the proxy voting process, focusing most specifically on universal proxy ballots and retail participation in the proxy process. Divided into two panels, the roundtable will focus on (i) “the state of contested director elections and whether changes should be made to the federal proxy rules to facilitate the use of universal proxy ballots by management and proxy contestants;” and (ii) “strategies for advancing retail shareholder participation in the proxy process.” The roundtable is scheduled to take place on February 19 in Washington, D.C.
On January 27, FinCEN fined a New York securities broker-dealer firm $20 million for violating the BSA. According to the press release, the firm failed to (i) establish an adequate anti-money laundering program; (ii) conduct proper due diligence on a foreign correspondent account; and (iii) comply with Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act. These failures resulted in customers engaging in suspicious trading, including prohibited third-party activity and illegal penny stock trading, without it being detected or reported. The firm must pay $10 million of the $20 million penalty to the US Department of the Treasury. The remaining $10 million will be paid to the SEC to settle a parallel enforcement action.
On January 21, the SEC announced a settlement with a credit rating agency in connection with its rating of certain commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS). The ratings agency agreed to pay the SEC more than $58 million for allegedly (i) misrepresenting its conduit fusion CMBS ratings methodology; (ii) publishing a “false and misleading article purporting to show that its new credit enhancement levels could withstand Great Depression-era levels of economic stress;” and (iii) failing to maintain and enforce internal controls regarding changes to its surveillance criteria. In a separate administrative order, the SEC instituted a litigated administrative proceeding against the former head of the agency’s CMBS Group for “fraudulently misreprent[ing] the manner in which the [ratings agency] calculated a critical aspect of certain CMBS ratings in 2011.”
On January 13, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations’ examination priorities for 2015. The examination priorities cover a wide range of financial institutions and focus on three areas: (i) protecting retail investors, especially those saving for or in retirement; (ii) assessing market-wide risks, including cybersecurity compliance and controls; and, (iii) using data analytics to identify signals of potential illegal activity. As to the risks to retail investors, the SEC noted that such investors are being sold products and services that were formerly characterized as alternative or institutional, including private funds, illiquid investments, and structured products. In addition, financial services firms are offering information, advice, products, and services to help retail investors plan for retirement. The SEC intends to assess the risks to retail investors that can arise from these trends.
On January 14, the SEC adopted new rules for security-based swap data repositories (SDRs), which store swap trading data. The rules require SDRs to register with the SEC and set reporting and public dissemination requirements for security-based swap transaction data. That reporting requirement, known as Regulation SBSR, outlines information that must be reported and publicly shared for each security-based swap transaction. The new rules are designed to increase transparency in the security-based swap market and are anticipated to reduce risks of default, improve price transparency, and hold financial institutions accountable for misconduct. The rules implement mandates under Title VII of the Dodd-Frank Act and will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Persons subject to the new rules governing the registration of SDRs must comply with them by 365 days after they are published in the Federal Register.
On January 12, the SEC fined two stock exchanges $14 million dollars for allegedly violating the Exchange Act by failing to accurately describe in their rules the order types being used on the exchanges. In its investigation, the SEC found that while operating under rules that described a single “price sliding” process for handling buy or sell orders, the exchanges actually offered three variations of “price sliding” order types. The SEC found that the “exchanges’ rules did not completely and accurately describe the prices at which those orders would be ranked and executable in certain circumstances, and they also failed to describe the execution priority of the three order types relative to each other and other order types.” Additionally, the SEC found that the exchanges disclosed certain information regarding how the order types operated to only some and not all of their members. The SEC determined that not all market participants were aware of how these order types operated. In addition to the $14 million penalty, the SEC order requires both exchanges, among other things, to (i) create and implement written policies and procedures related to the development of order types, and (ii) provide sufficient resources and regulatory staff to ensure regulatory functions are independent from their commercial interests. This is the SEC’s largest penalty against national securities exchanges.
On December 23, the SEC released its annual staff report on the findings of examinations of credit rating agencies registered as nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (NRSROs). As required by the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC must examine each NRSRO at least once per year and provide a report summarizing its findings. As a result of the examinations, the staff recommended NRSROs improve a number of areas, including (i) the use of affiliates or third-party contractors in the credit rating process, (ii) management of conflicts of interest related to the rating business operations, and (iii) adherence to policies and procedures for determining or reviewing credit ratings. In addition, the agency issued a separate report to Congress on the state of competition, transparency, and conflicts of interest among NRSROs.
On December 29, pursuant to section 610 of the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the SEC published a list of rules scheduled for review by the agency. The list is intended to invite public comment on whether the rules should be continued, amended, or rescinded to minimize economic impact on small entities. Comments are due by January 28, 2015.
On December 15, the SEC settled charges against a global manufacturer for allegedly violating the FCPA by providing non-business payments and travel expenses to Chinese government officials with the expectation of obtaining business. The SEC investigation revealed that approximately $230,000 in improper payments were allegedly made out of the company’s China-based offices and were falsely recorded as business and marketing expenses in the company’s records. The SEC alleged that insufficient internal controls allowed for the payments to continue and that as a result the company profited $1.7 million in contracts with state-owned entities in China. The company self-reported its misconduct and provided “extensive cooperation” during the SEC’s investigation, and will pay $1,714,852 in disgorgement, $310,117 in prejudgment interest, and a $375,000 penalty.
On December 8, the SEC fined a computer programmer $68,387.07 for operating two separate online exchanges that traded securities using virtual currency without registering the businesses as broker dealers. Further, the SEC charged that the programmer failed to register the online enterprises as exchanges as required by SEC regulations. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the programmer agreed to be barred from the securities industry for two years.
On November 19, the SEC announced that the agency voted to adopt new rules intended to improve the technology infrastructure of the U.S. securities markets. The new rules, titled Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity (Regulation SCI), will require comprehensive new controls for the technology systems employed by certain market participants. According to the press release, the rules will (i) provide a “corrective action” framework for entities to take when encountering issues with their systems; (ii) provide “notifications and reports to the SEC regarding systems problems and systems changes;” (iii) provide information on systems issues to participants and members; (iv) conduct business continuity testing; and (v) conduct reviews of automated systems annually. Regulation SCI will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On November 20, the SEC announced that a California based broker dealer agreed to settle alleged market access violations by paying a $2.44 million penalty. The SEC alleged that the broker-dealer failed to implement adequate risk controls before providing customers with access to the market. In addition to the penalty, two former senior employees agreed to settle allegations, without admitting or denying wrongdoing, against them for their alleged roles in causing the violations for a combined total of more than $85,000. Notably, the two employees were the first individuals the SEC had charged with violations of the market access rule.
On November 10, 2014, the Supreme Court denied Douglas Whitman’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Whitman v. United States, No. 14-29; Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a brief statement specifically highlighting their view of the role that the doctrine of lenity should play in the interpretation of criminal statutes. Whitman asked the high court to review his 2012 conviction for securities fraud and conspiracy under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Second Circuit appeared to defer to the SEC’s interpretation of ambiguous language in the Act—according to Justice Scalia, such an approach would disregard the “many cases . . . holding that, if a law has both criminal and civil applications, the rule of lenity governs its interpretation in both settings.” Justice Scalia further noted that it was the exclusive province of the legislature to create criminal laws, and to defer to the SEC’s interpretation of a criminal statute would “upend ordinary principles of interpretation.” Justice Scalia’s approach may indicate potential adjustments in the ongoing effort to strike the right balance between the due process rights of targets of enforcement actions to know what the law prohibits, and deference to enforcement agencies to interpret federal statutes flexibly. BuckleySandler discussed the tension between lenity and Chevron deference earlier this year in a January 16 article, Lenity, Chevron Deference, and Consumer Protection Laws.
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…
On November 3, Senators Johnson (D-SD) and Crapo (R-ID) of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs sent a letter to The Honorable Mary Jo White, Chair of the SEC, regarding an academic study showing that company filings submitted electronically to the SEC are, more often than not, available to private subscribers before the general public. The letter highlights the concern that some investors receive real-time information before it is widely available, and requests that the agency provide the steps it is taking to ensure that such unequal access to trading data is eliminated. Finally, the letter requests an outline of “what [it has] previously done to address any similar issues, how [it] will review for any other discrepancies in SEC systems and how [it] will monitor to avoid such issues in the future.”