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On April 16, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations issued a Risk Alert to discuss compliance issues related to Regulation S-P—the SEC’s primary rule regarding privacy notices and safeguard policies—and to provide assistance to registered investment advisors and broker-dealers (registrants) when issuing compliant privacy and opt-out notices. Regulation S-P requires registrants to provide customers with a clear and conspicuous notice accurately reflecting its privacy policies and practices, plus any options to opt out of sharing certain non-public personal information with nonaffiliated third parties. The notice must be sent annually throughout the duration of the customer relationship. Regulation S-P also requires registrants to implement written policies and practices reasonably designed to ensure that customer records and information are secure and protected against unauthorized access. The Risk Alert provides examples of common Regulation S-P compliance deficiencies and weaknesses, and advises registrants to “review their written policies and procedures, including implementation of those policies and procedures, to ensure that they are compliant with Regulation S-P.”
On April 3, the SEC issued a no-action letter to a Delaware-based airline chartering services company not recommending enforcement action for offering and selling “tokens” without registration under the SEC Act. According to the letter, the SEC relied upon the company’s counsel’s opinion, which assured that consumers are purchasing the tokens solely for prepaid “air charter services and not for investment purposes or with an expectation to earn a profit,” in determining that the “tokens” were not securities. Additionally, the SEC’s relief considered numerous other factors such as: (i) the platform for conducting the sale of the tokens will “be fully developed and operational” at the time any tokens are sold and funds derived from token sales will not be used to develop the platform; (ii) consumers will be able to immediately use the tokens for their intended functionality (i.e., to purchase air charter services) at the time of sale; (iii) the company will restrict the transfer of tokens to company wallets only and not to external wallets; (iv) the tokens will be sold for one dollar to be used solely on the platform to purchase air charter services, and will be treated as having a value of one dollar; (v) if the company offers to repurchase tokens, it will do so at a discount to the face value of the tokens that the holder seeks to resell to the company, unless a court orders the company to liquidate the tokens; and (vi) the tokens will not be marketed in such a way that there is a perceived potential for an increase in the token’s market value.
On March 29, the SEC and the United Kingdom (UK) Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) signed two updated Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to continue their cooperation and information sharing with respect to the “effective and efficient oversight of regulated entities across national borders.” The MOUs will come into force on the date EU legislation ceases to have direct effect in the UK, should the UK withdraw from the EU.
The first MOU is a supervisory arrangement covering regulated entities operating across national borders. The MOU—originally signed in 2006—includes updates to increase the scope of covered firms under the MOU to include firms that carry out derivatives, credit rating, and derivatives trading repository businesses. The update will reflect “the FCA’s assumption of responsibility from the European Securities and Markets authority for overseeing credit rating agencies and trade repositories in the event of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”
The second MOU—originally signed in 2013—provides a supervisory cooperation and exchange of information framework related to the supervision of covered entities operating within the alternative investment fund industry. The updates ensure that covered entities including investment advisers, fund managers, and private funds “will be able to continue to operate on a cross-border basis without interruption” in the event of a withdrawal.
On March 22, the SEC announced a settlement with a financial services firm to resolve allegations that certain associated persons on its securities lending desk allegedly “improperly borrowed” pre-released American Depositary Receipts (ADRs)—“U.S. securities that represent shares in foreign companies”—from non-firm brokers who did not own the foreign shares required to support those ADRs. The SEC noted in its press release that ADRs can be pre-released without the deposit of foreign shares only if (i) the brokers receiving the ADRs have an agreement with a depositary bank; and (ii) “the broker or its customer owns the number of foreign shares that corresponds to the number of shares the ADR represents.” The SEC alleged that the firm’s practices violated the Securities Act of 1933 and led to “inappropriate short selling and dividend arbitrage that should not have been occurring.” Moreover, the SEC claimed that the firm’s supervisory policies and procedures “failed to prevent and detect” the securities laws violations. The firm neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations, but agreed to pay more than $4.4 million in disgorgement, roughly $725,000 in prejudgment interest, and a civil money penalty of approximately $2.9 million. The SEC’s order acknowledges the bank’s cooperation in the investigation.
On March 26, the SEC announced awards totaling $50 million to two whistleblowers for volunteering information that led to a successful enforcement action, with one whistleblower receiving $37 million (the third-highest SEC award to date) and the other receiving $13 million. While details of the related enforcement action were not made public, the SEC’s award order noted that one of the whistleblowers “provided information and documentation that were of a significantly high quality and critically important,” including documents that “were akin to ‘smoking gun’ evidence.” As previously covered by InfoBytes here and here, the SEC awarded $50 million to two joint whistleblowers in March 2018 and $39 million to a single whistleblower in September 2018—the two highest awards given by the SEC so far. Since the program’s inception in 2012, the SEC has awarded more than $376 million to 61 whistleblowers.
On February 26, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued a long-awaited opinion in a case involving a life sciences manufacturing company and its former General Counsel. The 23-page opinion, slated for publication, takes a mixed view of the trial outcome, vacating in part, affirming in part, and remanding for the district court to determine whether to hold a new trial.
Two years ago, following a $55 million civil and criminal FCPA settlement by the company, a jury awarded Wadler (the company’s former General Counsel) $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages, including double back-pay under Dodd-Frank, in his whistleblower retaliation case against his former employer. The company appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court erroneously instructed the jury that SEC rules or regulations prohibit bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations resulted from Wadler’s own failure to conduct due diligence as the company’s General Counsel; that the district court should have allowed certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to Wadler’s pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that Wadler was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank because he only reported internally and did not report out to the SEC. The Court heard arguments on November 14, 2018.
Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, codified as 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, protects whistleblowers from retaliation under certain circumstances, including reporting violations of “any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” The company alleged, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that the district court’s jury instructions incorrectly stated that Section 806 encompasses reports of FCPA violations. The Court ruled that “statutory provisions of the FCPA, including the three books-and-records provisions and anti-bribery provision . . . are not ‘rules or regulations of the SEC’ under SOX § 806.” However, the Court found that with the right instructions, a jury could have still ruled in Wadler’s favor. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Section 806 verdict and remanded to the district court for consideration of a new trial. On the other hand, the Court held that the same jury instruction error was harmless for the purposes of Wadler’s California public policy claim, so the Court upheld that verdict and its associated damages. The Court also rejected the company’s claims of evidentiary error. Finally, the Court ruled that under another case involving a real estate investment company and its former executive, Dodd-Frank does not apply to people who only report misconduct internally, and vacated the Dodd-Frank claim. As for damages, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Wadler’s compensatory and punitive damages award but vacated the double back-pay associated with the Dodd-Frank claim.
This decision is likely the first circuit court opinion to cite the case in an FCPA case for its holding that individuals who only report violations internally do not hold “whistleblower” status under Dodd-Frank.
White House releases 2020 budget proposal; key areas include appropriations and efforts to combat terrorist financing
On March 11, the White House released its fiscal 2020 budget request, A Budget for a Better America. The budget was accompanied by texts entitled Major Savings and Reforms (MSR), which “contains detailed information on major savings and reform proposals”; Analytical Perspectives, which “contains analyses that are designed to highlight specified subject areas or provide other significant presentations of budget data that place the budget in perspective”; and an Appendix containing detailed supporting information. Funding through appropriations and efforts to combat terrorist financing remain key highlights carried over from last year. Notable takeaways of the 2020 budget proposal are as follows:
CFPB. In the MSR’s “Restructure the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” section, the budget revives a call to restructure the Bureau, and proposes legislative action to implement a two-year restructuring period, subject the CFPB to the congressional appropriations process starting in 2021, and “bring accountability” to the Bureau. Among other things, the proposed budget would cap the Federal Reserve’s transfers to the Bureau at $485 million in 2020.
Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC). The 2020 budget proposal requests that Congress establish funding levels through annual appropriations bills for FSOC (which is comprised of the heads of the financial regulatory agencies and monitors risk to the U.S. financial system) and its independent research arm, the Office of Financial Research (OFR). Currently FSOC and OFR set their own budgets.
Flood Insurance. The Credit and Insurance chapter of the budget’s Analytical Perspectives section discusses FEMA initiatives such as modifying the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to become a simpler, more customer-focused program, and “doubling the number of properties covered by flood insurance (either the NFIP or private insurance) by 2022.” Separately, the budget proposal emphasizes that the administration believes that “flood insurance rates should reflect the risk homeowners face by living in flood zones.”
Government Sponsored Enterprises. Noted within the MSR, the budget proposes doubling the guarantee fee charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to loan originators from 0.10 to 0.20 percentage points from 2020 through 2021. The proposal is designed to help “level the playing field for private lenders seeking to compete with the GSEs” and would generate an additional $32 billion over the 10-year budget window.
HUD. The budget proposes to eliminate funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, stating that “[s]tate and local governments are better equipped to address local community and economic development needs.” The proposal would continue to preserve access to homeownership opportunities for creditworthy borrowers through FHA and Ginnie Mae credit guarantees. The budget also requests $20 million above last year’s estimated level to help modernize FHA’s information technology systems and includes legislative proposals to “align FHA authorities with the needs of its lender enforcement program and limit FHA’s exposure to down-payment assistance practices.”
SEC. As stated in both the budget proposal and the MSR, the budget again proposes to eliminate the SEC’s mandatory reserve fund and would require the SEC to request additional funds through the congressional appropriations process starting in 2021. According to the Appendix, the reserve fund is currently funded by collected registration fees and is not subject to appropriation or apportionment. Under the proposed budget, the registration fees would be deposited in the Treasury’s general fund.
SIGTARP. As proposed in the MSR, the budget revives a plan that would reduce funding for the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) “commensurate with the wind-down of TARP programs.” According to the MSR, “Congress aligned the sunset of SIGTARP with the length of time that TARP funds or commitments are outstanding,” which, Treasury estimates, will be through 2023. The reduction reflects, among other things, that less than one percent of TARP investments remain outstanding. This will mark the final time payments are expected to be made under the Home Affordable Modification Program.
Student Loan Reform. As with the 2019 budget proposal, the 2020 proposed budget seeks to establish a single income-driven repayment plan that caps monthly payments at 12.5 percent of discretionary income. Furthermore, balances would be forgiven after a specific number of repayment years—15 for undergraduate debt, 30 for graduate. In doing so, the proposal would eliminate subsidized loans and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, auto-enroll “severely delinquent borrowers,” and create a process for borrowers to share income data for multiple years. With certain exceptions, these proposals will only apply to loans originated on or after July 1, 2020.
Treasury Department. The budget states that combating terrorist financing, proliferation financing, and other types of illicit financing are a top priority for the administration, and $167 million has been requested for Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence to “continue its work safeguarding the financial system from abuse and combating other national security threats using economic tools.” The proposed budget also requests $125 million for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to administer the Bank Secrecy Act and its work to prevent the financing of terrorism, money laundering, and other financial crimes. An additional $18 million was proposed for strengthening and protecting Treasury’s IT systems.
CFTC, SEC settle with foreign trading platform conducting Bitcoin transactions without proper registration
On March 4, the CFTC resolved an action taken against a foreign trading platform and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly offering and selling security-based swaps to U.S. customers without registering as a futures commission merchant or designated contract market with the CFTC. The CFTC alleged that the platform permitted customers to transact in “contracts for difference,” which were transactions to exchange the difference in value of an underlying asset between the time at which the trading position was established and the time at which it was terminated. The transactions were initiated through, and settled in, Bitcoin. The CFTC alleged that these transactions constituted “retail commodity transactions,” which would have required the platform to receive the proper registration.
According to the CFTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) neglected to register as a futures commission merchant with the CFTC; and (ii) failed to comply with required anti-money laundering procedures, including implementing an adequate know-your-customer/customer identification program. The consent order entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposes a civil monetary penalty of $175,000 and requires the disgorgement of $246,000 of gains. The consent order also requires the defendants to certify to the CFTC the liquidation of all U.S. customer accounts and the repayment of approximately $570,000 worth of Bitcoins to U.S. customers.
In a parallel action, the SEC entered into a final judgment the same day to resolve claims that, among other things, the defendants failed to properly register as a security-based swaps dealer. The defendants are permanently restrained and enjoined from future violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and are required to pay disgorgement of approximately $53,393. This action demonstrates the potential application of CFTC and SEC registration requirements to non-U.S. companies engaging in covered transactions with U.S. customers.
U.K. oil and gas services company sets aside $280 million for bribery settlements with multiple countries
On February 20, a London-based oil and gas services company, reported in a filing with the SEC that it has set aside $280 million as an estimate for the settlement of investigations by U.S., Brazilian, and French law enforcement authorities regarding potential violations of anticorruption laws in several countries. The company’s predecessor previously paid $338 million to settle FCPA charges brought by the DOJ and the SEC in 2010.
On February 15, an information technology and business process outsourcing company paid $25 million to settle SEC civil charges that it violated the FCPA. The SEC alleged that the company paid $3.6 million in bribes through its construction contractor to senior government officials in India in order to obtain permits needed to build, among other things, a large office campus in Chennai. To resolve the SEC’s allegations, the company paid $19 million in disgorgement and a $6 million penalty.
The DOJ declined to bring criminal charges against the company, citing, among other factors, the company’s voluntary self-disclosure, comprehensive investigation, full cooperation and remediation, and its preexisting compliance program. The company issued a statement highlighting that the matter did not concern any of the company’s work with clients and did not affect any of the services it provides to clients.
On the same day the settlement was announced, two former company executives—the president and chief legal officer—were hit with civil and criminal charges for allegedly authorizing $2 million in bribes and directing the creation of false contractor change orders to mask payment of the bribes. The former executives are charged with violating the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA. Pursuant to its letter agreement with DOJ, the company is required to fully cooperate in the ongoing prosecutions.
- Buckley Webcast: Maintaining privilege in cross-border internal investigations
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "The state of the BSA 2019: What’s working, what’s not, and how to improve it" at the West Coast Anti Money-Laundering Forum
- Buckley Webcast: The future of the Community Reinvestment Act
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
- Buckley Webcast: Amendments to the CFPB's proposed debt collection
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "UDAAP compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- APPROVED Webcast: State and SAFE Act licensing requirements for banks
- John C. Redding to discuss "TCPA compliance in the era of mobile" at the Auto Finance Risk Summit
- Buckley Webcast: The next consumer litigation frontier? Assessing the consumer privacy litigation and enforcement landscape in 2019 and beyond
- Buckley Webcast: Data breach litigation and biometric legislation
- Buckley Webcast: Trends in e-discovery technology and case law
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program