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On January 7, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced the release of its 2020 Examination Priorities. The annual release of exam priorities provides transparency into the risk-based examination process and lists areas that pose current and potential risks to investors. OCIE’s 2020 examination priorities include:
- Retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE places particular emphasis on disclosures and recommendations provided to investors.
- Information security. In addition to cybersecurity, top areas of focus include: risk management, vendor management, online and mobile account access controls, data loss prevention, appropriate training, and incident response.
- Fintech and innovation, digital assets and electronic investment advice. OCIE notes that the rapid pace of technology development, as well as new uses of alternative data, presents new risks and will focus attention on the effectiveness of compliance programs.
- Investment advisers, investment companies, broker-dealers, and municipal advisers. Risk-based exams will continue for each of these types of entities, with an emphasis on new registered investment advisers (RIA) and RIAs that have not been examined. Other themes in exams of these entities include board oversight, trading practices, advice to investors, RIA activities, disclosures of conflicts of interest, and fiduciary obligations.
- Anti-money laundering. Importance will be placed on beneficial ownership, customer identification and due diligence, and policies and procedures to identify suspicious activity.
- Market infrastructure. Particular attention will be directed to clearing agencies, national securities exchanges and alternative trading systems, and transfer agents.
- FINRA and MSRB. OCIE exams will emphasize regulatory programs, exams of broker-dealers and municipal advisers, as well as policies, procedures and controls.
On December 9, the SEC announced a settlement with a broker to resolve allegations concerning the improper handling of pre-released American Depositary Receipts (ADRs), or “U.S. securities that represent foreign shares of a foreign company.” 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 depository bank; and (ii) the broker or the broker's customer owns the number of foreign shares that corresponds to the number of shares the ADR represents. According to the SEC’s order, the broker improperly borrowed pre-released ADRs from other brokers that it should have known did not own the foreign shares necessary to support the ADRs. The SEC also found that the broker failed to implement policies and procedures to reasonably detect whether its securities lending desk personnel were engaging in such transactions. The broker neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations, but agreed to pay more than $2.2 million in disgorgement, roughly $468,000 in prejudgment interest, and a $1.25 million penalty. The SEC’s order acknowledged the broker’s cooperation in the investigation and that the broker had entered into tolling agreements.
On November 15, the SEC announced it issued its fiscal year 2019 whistleblower program annual report to Congress, which states that since the program’s inception, the SEC has ordered over $2 billion in total monetary sanctions in enforcement actions that resulted from information brought by meritorious whistleblowers. As for FY 2019, the SEC received over 5,200 whistleblower tips, with over 300 tips relating to cryptocurrencies, and awarded approximately $60 million in whistleblower awards to eight individuals. Since the program’s inception, the SEC has awarded approximately $387 million to 67 whistleblowers. The report acknowledges that FY 2019 was an “unusual year” due to the lapse in appropriations, referring to the government shutdown from the end of December 2018 through most of January 2019, and includes a summary of the six actions leading to the eight awards of FY 2019. The report notes that the agency anticipates final rules to be adopted in FY 2020 related to the July 2018 proposed amendments to the whistleblower program (covered by InfoBytes here). The proposed amendments, among other things, address the Supreme Court ruling in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers (covered in a Buckley Special Alert) and authorize the SEC to adjust an award’s percentage as appropriate to advance the goals of rewarding and incentivizing whistleblowers.
On the same day, the SEC announced a collective award of over $260,000 to three whistleblowers who submitted a joint tip “alerting the agency to a well-concealed fraud targeting retail investors,” which led to a successful enforcement action. The order does not provide any additional details regarding the whistleblower or the company involved in the enforcement action. With this new action, the SEC has now awarded approximately $387 million to 70 whistleblowers.
On November 8, the CFTC announced a $14 million settlement with a national bank to resolve allegations that the bank violated swap dealer business conduct standards in its foreign exchange trading business. Among other things, the bank allegedly failed to properly price a $4 billion foreign exchange forward contract with a counterparty when it selected a rate it “believed would be in the range of the true weighted average and thus acceptable to the counterparty,” instead of calculating a “weighted average rate based on actual spot trades.” According to the CFTC, at the time the bank did not have a system in place to accurately track trades used to fill the counterparty’s order and ensure compliance with policies and procedures regarding communicating with counterparties in a fair and balanced manner. (The bank has since cured these deficiencies.) The bank, which has neither admitted nor denied the findings, agreed to pay a $10 million civil money penalty and $4.47 million in restitution (previously paid to the counterparty) under the terms of the settlement order.
On November 4, the SEC announced the filing of an amended complaint in an action against an online auction portal and its CEO (collectively, “defendants”), along with the CEO’s wife as a relief defendant. The original complaint, filed in May, alleged that defendants operated a $23 million fraudulent securities offering and misappropriated investor proceeds. The amended complaint adds, among other things, a new count for “Impeding: Rule 21F-17 of the Exchange Act,” alleging that the defendants took actions to impede individuals from communicating with the SEC and other agencies regarding misconduct at the company by conditioning the return of investor money on signing agreements with confidentiality clauses purportedly prohibiting the reporting of potential securities law violations to law enforcement agencies. The SEC seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions, disgorgement plus prejudgment interest, and penalties.
On October 30, the SEC requested public input on asset-level disclosure requirements for residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). The current requirements, which were adopted in 2014 in response to the financial crisis, require issuers to disclose a wide range of data on each mortgage loan in the underlying pool at the time of an offering and on an ongoing basis. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September, the U.S. Treasury Department released a Housing Reform Plan, which, among other things, recommended that the SEC review the RMBS asset-level disclosure requirements to assess the number of required reporting fields and to clarify certain defined terms for SEC-registered private-label securitization offerings. In response to Treasury’s plan, Chairman Clayton requests that SEC staff assess the “RMBS asset-level disclosure requirements with an eye toward facilitating SEC-registered offerings,” and seeks public input on a variety of questions related to the topic, including (i) whether the circumstances in the RMBS market have changed since the financial crisis and the 2014 adoption of the requirements; (ii) whether one or more data points in the requirements should be revised and why; and (iii) whether any data points should be eliminated and if elimination would result in any adverse effects. The announcement does not contain a deadline for members of the public to submit their input.
On October 11, the SEC announced it obtained a temporary restraining order through an emergency action filed against two offshore entities that allegedly raised more than $1.7 billion of investor funds. According to the complaint, the entities sold approximately 2.9 million digital tokens worldwide, including more than 1 billion tokens to 39 U.S. purchasers. The entities promised that the tokens would be delivered upon the launch of its own blockchain by the end of October 2019. The SEC alleges the entities violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act by failing to register its offers and sales of securities with the SEC. In addition to the emergency relief, the SEC is seeking a permanent injunction, disgorgement, and civil penalties against the offshore entities.
On September 30, the SEC announced a settlement with a blockchain technology company resolving allegations that the company conducted an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO). According to the order, the company raised several billion dollars from the general public after an ICO, in which it publicly offered and sold 900 million digital assets in exchange for virtual currency, to raise capital to develop software. The SEC alleges that the company violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act because the digital assets it sold were securities under federal securities laws, and the company did not have the required registration statement filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The order, which the company consented to without admitting nor denying the findings, imposes a $24 million civil money penalty.
On September 27, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced a whistleblower award of approximately $7 million to an individual who reported information that led to a successful Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) enforcement action. The associated order notes that five claimants submitted whistleblower award applications to the CFTC in response to the covered action, but the CFTC provided the award only to claimant one, as that individual voluntarily provided the original information to the Commission. The order does not provide any other significant details about the information provided or the related enforcement action. The CFTC has awarded over $90 million to whistleblowers since the enactment of the Whistleblower Program under the Dodd-Frank Act, and their information has led to more than $730 million in sanctions to date.
On September 18, the SEC announced it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a digital platform and its owner (collectively, “defendants”) for raising over $14 million in an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 and for acting as unregistered brokers for other digital asset offerings in violation of Section 15 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The SEC contends the defendants claimed to investors that their tokens would increase in value upon trading and that ICO token holders would be able to swap them for other tokens on the platform, at an average of a 75 percent discount. The SEC notes that the tokens had experienced “a precipitous loss in value” since issuance, averaging roughly 1/20th of the average purchase price during the offering. Moreover, the SEC alleges the defendants acted as a broker for other ICOs, raising over $650 million for their clients. The SEC’s suit seeks a permanent injunction, disgorgement of profits plus interest, and civil penalties.
- Andrew W. Schilling to moderate "Expectations of in-house counsel from their law firm partners" at the ACI's 7th Annual Advanced Forum on False Claims and Qui Tam
- Buckley Webcast: Tips for navigating changes to the FHA recertification process
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A 20/20 view on 2020’s legislative and regulatory outlook" at the ACAMS Anti-Financial Crime and Public Policy Conference
- Kari K. Hall and Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Overdrafts and regulatory trends" at the CLE Alabama Banking Law Update
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Industry open forum session on NMLS usage" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Regulating innovative consumer lending products" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Daniel P. Stipano to moderate "Washington update" at the 17th Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti Money Laundering 2020 conference
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: CFL overview
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Pathway of the SARs: Tracking trajectories of suspicious activity reports from alerts to prosecution" at the ACAMS moneylaundering.com 25th Annual International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Which bud’s for you? A deep-dive into evolving marijuana laws" at the ACAMS moneylaundering.com 25th Annual International AML & Financial Crime Conference