On November 12, the SEC announced a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with a former hedge fund administrator, the agency’s first ever DPA with an individual. The DPA follows a November 2012 SEC enforcement action against a hedge fund and its manager, who allegedly misappropriated more than $1.5 million from the hedge fund and overstated its performance to investors. The SEC action derived from and was aided by information provided by the hedge fund administrator. In return for the assistance provided, the SEC agreed to enter the DPA instead of pursuing allegations that the settling administrator aided and abetted the fund’s securities law violations. The DPA requires the administrator to disgorge $50,000, and prohibits the administrator from, (i) serving as a fund administrator or otherwise providing any services to any hedge fund for a period of five years, and (ii) associating with any broker, dealer, investment adviser, or registered investment company. The SEC states the agreement demonstrates its commitment to rewarding proactive cooperation. According to the SEC, the agreement strikes a balance between holding the administrator accountable for his part in the alleged misconduct, while giving him credit for reporting the fraud and providing full cooperation without any assurances of leniency.
On November 26, the DOJ announced that Weatherford International—a multinational oil services company—and certain of its subsidiaries agreed to pay approximately $250 million in fines and penalties to resolve FCPA, sanctions, and export control violations. The DOJ alleged in a criminal information that the company knowingly failed to establish an effective system of internal accounting controls designed to detect and prevent corruption, including FCPA violations. The alleged compliance failures allowed employees of certain of the company’s subsidiaries in Africa and the Middle East to engage in prohibited conduct over the course of many years, including both bribery of foreign officials and fraudulent misuse of the United Nations’ Oil for Food Program. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, pursuant to which it must pay an approximately $87 million penalty, retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for at least 18 months, and continue to implement an enhanced FCPA compliance program and internal controls. Read more…
On October 28, the SEC announced enforcement actions against three investment advisory firms and certain executives for allegedly violating the “custody rule,” which was updated in 2010 and applies to SEC-registered investment advisory firms that have legal ownership or access to client assets or an arrangement permitting them to withdraw client assets. According to the SEC, in addition to other alleged securities violations, the firms allegedly failed to maintain client assets with a qualified custodian or engage an independent public accountant to conduct required surprise exams. To avoid further administrative proceedings, the firms and executives agreed to settle but did not admit the allegations. The firms and individuals collectively agreed to pay $535,000 in penalties, and one firm was required to disgorge nearly $350,000, inclusive of prejudgment interest. The firms also must submit to independent compliance reviews and implement certain specified compliance enhancements.
On October 23, the CFPB, the OCC, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve Board, the NCUA, and the SEC proposed joint standards for assessing the diversity policies and practices of regulated institutions. Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Act required the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWI) at each agency to develop the standards. The Act specifically prohibits the standards from imposing requirements on or otherwise affecting the lending policies and practices of any regulated entity, or requiring any specific action based on the findings of an assessment, and the agencies state that the assessments will not occur within the standard examination or supervision process. The standards, which the agencies believe are designed to promote “transparency and awareness,” cover four general areas: (i) organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, (ii) workforce profile and employment practices, (iii) procurement and business practices to promote supplier diversity, and (iv) practices to promote transparency of organizational diversity and inclusion. The agencies state that the standards account for variables including asset size, number of employees, governance structure, income, number of members or customers, contract volume, location, and community characteristics, and the agencies recognize the standards may need to change and improve over time. The proposed standards are subject to a public comment period, which will run for 60 days once they are published in the Federal Register.
On October 22, the DOJ and the SEC announced parallel criminal and civil actions against a U.S. company for allegedly violating the FCPA by paying bribes and falsifying documents in connection with selling ATMs to bank customers in China, Indonesia, and Russia. The federal authorities allege that from 2005 to 2010 the company provided approximately $1.8 million of value to employees of its bank customers in China and Indonesia, including state-owned banks, in the form of payments, gifts, and non-business travel. The company allegedly attempted to disguise the benefits by routing the payments through third parties designated by the banks and by recording leisure trips for bank employees as “training” expenses. The government also alleges that from 2005 to 2009, the company entered into false contracts with a distributor in Russia for services that the distributor was not performing. Instead, the distributor allegedly used the approximately $1.2 million in payments to bribe employees of privately-owned Russian banks to secure ATM-related contracts for the company. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ, agreeing to pay a $25.2 million penalty, and it consented to a final judgment in the SEC action, pursuant to which it will disgorge approximately $22.97 million, inclusive of prejudgment interest. The company agreed to implement numerous specific changes to its internal controls and compliance systems and to retain a compliance monitor for at least 18 months. The government acknowledged the company’s voluntary disclosure, cooperation, and extensive internal investigation.
On October 24, the SEC released a cease-and-desist order that resolves FCPA allegations against a Michigan-based medical technology company. The SEC alleged that the company’s subsidiaries in five different countries—Argentina, Greece, Mexico, Poland, and Romania—bribed doctors, health care professionals, and other government officials to obtain or retain business. The alleged activities involved approximately $2.2 million in direct payments, travel and conference expenses, and donations to a university associated with a foreign official made over a four-and-a-half year period. The SEC investigation found that the payments were incorrectly described as legitimate expenses in the company’s books and records and were described as, among other things, charitable donations, consulting and service contracts, travel expenses, commissions, and legal expenses. Without admitting the allegations, the company agreed to disgorge approximately $7.5 million in profits obtained through the alleged activities, and to pay a $3.5 million civil penalty plus an additional $2.3 million in pre-judgment interest.
On October 23, the SEC announced penalties totaling $400,000 against three investment advisory firms and their executives for allegedly repeatedly ignoring problems with their compliance programs, which the SEC deemed inadequate to prevent misleading statements in marketing materials or inadvertent overbilling of clients. The penalties ranged from $25,000 for individuals to $100,000 for one of the firms. Among other things, the SEC highlighted the following deficiencies, which varied among the firms: (i) failing to complete annual compliance reviews, (ii) making misleading statements on company’s website and investor brochures by overstating the amount of assets under management while contradicting the amount the firm presented in its SEC filing, (iii) failing to adopt and implement written compliance policies and procedures, (iv) making false and misleading disclosures about historical performance, compensation, and conflicts of interest, (v) repeatedly over- and under-billing clients, (vi) failing to disclose known compliance deficiencies to potential clients in response due diligence questionnaires or requests for proposals, (vii) inflating the amounts of assets under management in SEC filings, and (viii) improperly removing and retaining nonpublic personal client information by an executive who left one of the firms. In addition to agreeing to the penalties, the firms agreed to hire compliance consultants and adopt specific compliance enhancements. The SEC took the actions as part of its Compliance Program Initiative, which targets firms that fail to effectively act upon SEC warnings about compliance deficiencies.
This week, federal authorities announced the assessment of civil money penalties against two financial institutions for alleged Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) compliance failures. In the first action, FinCEN and the OCC alleged that a national bank failed to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) from April 2008 to September 2009 for activity in accounts belonging to a law firm through which one of the firm’s principals ran a Ponzi scheme. The agencies claim that the bank willfully violated the BSA’s reporting requirements by failing to detect and adequately report suspicious activities in a timely manner, even when the bank’s anti-money laundering surveillance software identified the suspicious activity (the bank subsequently filed five late SARs related to this conduct in 2011). FinCEN and the OCC assessed concurrent $37.5 million penalties. The FinCEN penalty is the first assessed by that agency’s recently created Enforcement Division. In addition, the SEC charged the bank and a former executive with related securities violations and ordered the bank to pay an additional $15 million penalty and to cease and desist from the alleged activity, including providing misleading information to investors as to amounts of money in particular accounts and actions the bank had taken to limit fraudulent activity.
In a second action, coordinated among FinCEN, the OCC, and the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, federal authorities assessed $8.2 million in total penalties against a now defunct community bank for compliance failures related to Mexican and Dominican Republic money exchange houses. The government alleged that the bank willfully violated the BSA by (i) failing to implement an effective AML program reasonably designed to manage risks of money laundering and other illicit activity, (ii) failing to conduct adequate due diligence on foreign correspondent accounts, and (iii) failing to detect and adequately report suspicious activities in a timely manner. FinCEN and the OCC assessed concurrent $4.1 million penalties, and the DOJ will collect an additional $4.1 million through civil asset forfeiture.
On August 12, New York Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky issued a notice of inquiry about the “appropriate regulatory guidelines that [the NY DFS] should put in place for virtual currencies.” The NY DFS notes the emergence of Bitcoin and other virtual currency as the catalyst for its inquiry, and the notice states that the NY DFS already has “conducted significant preliminary work.” That preliminary work includes 22 subpoenas the NY DFS reportedly issued last week to companies associated with Bitcoin.
The NY DFS is concerned that virtual currency exchangers may be engaging in money transmission as defined in New York. Under existing New York law, and the laws of a majority of other states, companies engaged in money transmission must obtain a license, post collateral, submit to periodic examinations, and comply with anti-money laundering laws. However, the NY DFS also suggests that regulating virtual currency under existing money transmission rules may not be the most beneficial approach. Instead, it is considering “new guidelines that are tailored to the unique characteristics of virtual currencies.” The NY DFS notice does not provide any timeline for further action on these issues.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs is reviewing federal policy as it relates to virtual currencies. Read more…
On July 31, the SEC approved a final rule that amends certain broker-dealer annual reporting, audit, and notification requirements. The amendments require, among other things, (i) that broker-dealers conduct audits in accordance with PCAOB standards, (ii) that broker-deals that clear transactions or carry customer accounts agree to allow the SEC or the broker-dealer’s designated examining authority (DEA) to review the documentation associated with certain reports of the broker-dealer’s independent public accountant and to allow the accountant to discuss the findings relating to the reports of the accountant with those representatives when requested in connection with a regulatory examination of the broker-dealer, and (iii) that broker-dealers file a new form with their DEA that elicits information about the broker-dealer’s practices with respect to the custody of securities and funds of customers and non-customers. Broker-dealers are required to begin filing new quarterly reports with the SEC and annual reports with the Securities Investor Protection Corporation by the end of 2013, and must begin filing annual reports with the SEC June 1, 2014. The SEC also approved amendments to the net capital, customer protection, books and records, and notification rules for broker-dealers. Those amendments take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On July 18, the Senate Banking Committee approved Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to be the next Director of the FHFA, on a 12-10 party line vote. On a voice vote, the Committee also approved Michael Piwowar and Kara Stein as members of the Securities Exchange Commission, Jason Furman to serve as member and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Richard Metsger to sit on the National Credit Union Administration Board. Finally, again by voice vote, the Committee voted to extend the term of SEC Chair Mary Jo White until June 5, 2019. The nominations could come before a vote of the full Senate in the coming weeks.
On June 21, the SEC approved a change to FINRA’s rules that will allow the self-regulatory organization to publish greater information about FINRA’s disciplinary actions. Under existing rules, FINRA only releases disciplinary actions upon request, unless the action meets specified criteria established for use in determining whether an action is worthy of publication. Once the new rules take effect – likely several months from now – those publication criteria will be removed, and most FINRA disciplinary actions will be released as a matter of course. FINRA will retain authority to redact information to protect privacy of individuals. The new rules also update and codify FINRA’s practices related to the publication of other FINRA actions, including temporary cease and desist orders, statutory disqualification decisions, expedited proceeding decisions, summary actions, and others.
On June 18, numerous media outlets reported that SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated that the SEC will shift its policy toward extracting admissions from parties facing allegations of wrongdoing as a condition of resolving those allegations. While a majority of cases likely still will be settled under the current “neither admit nor deny” rubric, the SEC will seek admissions in cases that meet certain criteria, which likely will include “widespread harm to investors.” The shift would extend a policy adopted last year by then-SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami to no longer allow defendants who are convicted of or admit guilt with regard to criminal charges to neither admit nor deny the parallel civil liability. The SEC now may seek an admission even where there is no criminal finding or admission. This change follows increasing pressure from members of Congress on federal regulators and law enforcement authorities to more vigorously pursue allegations of wrongdoing by financial institutions, including, most recently, an inquiry by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as to whether the SEC and other agencies have conducted any internal research or analysis on trade-offs to the public between settling an enforcement action without admission of guilt and going forward with litigation to obtain a judicial finding of unlawful conduct.
On June 12, 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 unsealed criminal charges against a third employee of the broker-dealer who allegedly arranged bribe payments to a Venezuela state economic development bank official in exchange for financial trading business for the broker-dealer. The SEC, whose routine compliance examination detected the allegedly illegal conduct, announced parallel civil charges.
On June 3, the SEC Chairman Mary Jo White appointed Robert E. Rice as Chief Counsel. Mr. Rice previously served as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. Most recently he was head of governance, litigation, and regulation for the Americas, and the global co-head of the governance, litigation, and regulation operating committee for an international financial institution.