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On June 4, the SEC announced it had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a tech company issuer for allegedly raising approximately $100 million through an unregistered initial coin offering. According to the complaint, the issuer failed to provide required disclosures to investors and did not register the offer or sale of its digital tokens with the SEC, as required by Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. The SEC contends that the issuer marketed the digital tokens as an investment opportunity and told investors that they could earn future profits from the issuer’s efforts to create, develop, and support a digital “ecosystem.” According to the SEC, “[f]uture profits based on the efforts of others is a hallmark of a securities offering that must comply with the federal securities laws.” The SEC’s suit seeks a permanent injunction, disgorgement of profits plus interest, and a civil penalty.
On June 3, the SEC announced awards totaling $3 million to two whistleblowers for jointly volunteering information that led to a successful enforcement action involving an alleged securities law violation that impacted retail investors. The SEC noted that the whistleblowers “undertook significant and timely steps to have their employer remediate the harm caused by the alleged violations.” The order does not provide any additional details regarding the whistleblowers or the company involved in the enforcement action. Since the program’s inception in 2012, the SEC has awarded approximately $384 million to 64 whistleblowers.
On May 24, the SEC announced a $4.5 million award to a whistleblower who reported concerns internally to his or her company and also to the SEC within 120 days of reporting to the company. This marked the first time the SEC issued an award to a claimant under the provision of the whistleblower rules that were “designed to incentivize internal reporting by whistleblowers who also report to the SEC within 120 days.” The company reported the allegations, and later the findings of the internal investigation it launched as a result of the claimant’s tip, to the SEC and another federal agency. The SEC initiated its own investigation after the company self-reported, which resulted in a successful enforcement action and the $4.5 million award to the whistleblower that originated the allegations. The order does not provide any additional details regarding the whistleblower or the company involved in the enforcement actions. Since the program’s inception in 2012, the SEC has awarded approximately $381 million to 62 whistleblowers.
On April 19, the SEC announced that an online lending platform will pay a $3 million penalty to resolve allegations it miscalculated and materially overstated annualized net returns (ANR) to investors. According to the order, between 2015 and 2017, the company allegedly excluded securities linked to certain charged-off consumer loans from its calculation of ANR and allegedly failed to identify and correct the error, despite knowing that employees misunderstood the code underlying the ANR calculation and despite alleged complaints by investors. As a result, the company allegedly materially overstated the ANR to a total of more than 30,000 investors. After a large institutional investor complained to the company in April 2017, it notified investors of the misstatements and corrected the ANR in May 2017. In agreeing to a settlement, the company did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings, and the order acknowledges that the company has since instituted “a number of controls designed to prevent and detect similar errors in the future,” including new management supervision, quarterly reviews, and semi-annual testing.
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 12, the DOJ announced that a multinational corporation will pay $1.5 billion in a settlement resolving claims brought under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) that a financial services subsidiary of the corporation misrepresented the quality of loans it originated in connection with the marketing and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). According to the DOJ, between 2005 and 2007, the majority of the mortgage loans sold by the subsidiary for inclusion in RMBS did not comply with the quality representations made about the loans. Specifically, the loan analysts allegedly approved mortgage loans that did not meet criteria outlined in the company’s underwriting guidelines, as they would receive additional compensation based on the number of loans they approved. The DOJ asserts that there were inadequate resources and authority for the subsidiary’s quality control department, resulting in deficiencies in risk management and fraud controls. Additionally, if an investment bank were to reject a loan due to defects in the loan file, the DOJ alleges the subsidiary would attempt to find a new purchaser, without disclosing the previous rejection or identifying the alleged defects. The corporation does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing, but agreed to pay a $1.5 billion civil money penalty to resolve the matter.
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 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.
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.
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