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On September 20, the SEC announced the approval of its revised Privacy Act rules, which govern the handling of personal information in the federal government. Among other things, the final rule will update, clarify, and streamline the SEC’s Privacy Act Regulations by (i) clarifying the purpose and scope of the regulations; (ii) updating definitions to plainly describe regulation processes; (iii) allowing for electronic methods to verify requesters identities and submit Privacy Act requests; and (iv) providing for a shorter response time to Privacy Act requests. The final rule will also update fee provisions and eliminate unnecessary provisions. The SEC last updated its Privacy Act rules in 2011, and due to the extent of the provisions, the final rule will replace the commission’s current Privacy Act regulations entirely.
The revised rule will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On August 25, the SEC entered into a settlement agreement with a national bank that requires the bank to pay a $35 million civil penalty for overcharging more than 10,900 investment advisory accounts over $26.8 million in advisory fees. According to the order, the bank and its predecessors agreed to reduce standard advisory fee rates for certain clients when clients agreed to open accounts at the bank via handwritten or typed notes and changes on the clients’ standard investment advisory agreements; however, these reduced rates were not entered into the bank’s billing systems when setting up client accounts. As a result, the clients were overcharged advisory fees for years, because the bank also failed to adopt policies and procedures to prevent overbilling.
The agreement “underscores the need for firms growing their businesses through acquisition to ensure that their growth does not come at the expense of client protection,” said the Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, Gurbir S. Grewel. He further noted that “[i]nvestment advisers must adopt and implement policies and procedures to ensure that they honor their agreements with all of their clients, including legacy clients of predecessor firms.”
In addition to the $35 million civil penalty, the bank also paid affected accountholders approximately $40 million to reimburse clients for the overcharging. The bank did not admit or deny the SEC’s charges set forth in the agreement.
SEC files brief in its Supreme Court appeal to reverse 5th Circuit ruling against use of adjudication powers and ALJs
On August 28, the SEC filed a brief in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s 2022 ruling that the commission’s in-house adjudication is unconstitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 5th Circuit held that the SEC’s in-house adjudication of a petitioners’ case violated their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and relied on unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The brief argues that securities laws are “distinct from common law because they authorize the government to seek civil penalties even if no private person has yet suffered harm from the defendant’s violation (and therefore no person could obtain damages).” Moreover, the SEC argues that the Court has continually upheld the right of an agency to decide whether to enter an enforcement action through the civil or criminal process. The SEC referenced the 1985 Heckler v. Chaney case, which set the precedent that there is no constitutional difference between the power to decide whether to pursue an enforcement action and where to pursue an enforcement action, as they are both executive powers, supporting the claim that there is “a long and unbroken line of decisions that have relied on the public-rights doctrine in upholding such statutory schemes against Article III and Seventh Amendment challenges.” The SEC also reminded the Court that when it enforces securities laws through an administrative enforcement proceeding with a result that is not in favor of the respondent, the respondent may obtain a judicial review through the court of appeals. Finally, the commission contends that the 5th Circuit erred when it held that statutory removal restrictions for ALJs are unconstitutional, and that Congress has “acted permissibly in requiring agencies to establish cause for their removal of ALJs.”
On August 28, the SEC entered an order against a Los Angeles-based media and entertainment company charging them with conducting an unregistered offering of crypto asset securities in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). According to the order, the company offered and sold different tiers of NFTs to hundreds of investors between October and December of 2021, and ultimately raised approximately $30 million from the sales. The SEC alleged that the company encouraged potential investors to purchase the unregistered NFTs in return for an investment in the business, promising “tremendous value” to the purchasers if the company was successful in its attempts to “build the next Disney” and launch other creative projects. The order found that the NFTs were ultimately investment contracts and therefore securities, and that the company subsequently violated federal securities laws by offering and selling crypto assets in an unregistered securities offering that was not otherwise exempt from registration requirements.
The SEC noted that all securities, in whatever form, are required to be registered and that when companies fail to register securities, “investors of all types are deprived of the protections afforded them by the robust disclosures and other safeguards long provided by our securities laws.” The company did not admit or deny the findings set forth in the order but agreed to cease-and-desist from violating registration provisions of the 1933 Act and pay a combined penalty of over $6.1 million in fees. The order also establishes a “Fair Fund” to return money to investors who paid to purchase NFTs.
On the same day, the SEC released a statement from Republican commissioners, Hester M. Peirce and Mark T. Uyeda, underscoring the significance of the commission’s first NFT enforcement action. “People are experimenting with a lot of different uses of NFTs,” said the commissioners in their partial dissents. “Consequently, any attempt to use this enforcement action as precedent is fraught with difficulty.” The commissioners further criticized the SEC’s failure to provide guidance on NFTs when they first started proliferating and raised several questions.
On August 25, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of $18 million to a whistleblower who provided new information and assistance that led to a successful SEC enforcement action. According to the redacted order, the whistleblower provided additional helpful information and substantial, continuing assistance that helped the SEC staff saved f time and resources during the investigation. In the same order, the Commission affirmed the denial of a second claimant’s award claims after claimant 2 argued that they were the source of the original information that led to the opening of the investigation. The SEC determined that they had insufficient evidence to support their claims and that the Commission’s staff used claimant 1’s information, not claimant 2’s. Moreover, the claimant 2 did not satisfy “Rule 21F-4(c)(3), as Claimant 2 did not submit information to the Commission within 120 days of reporting it to the Company. Claimant 2 submitted information to the Commission after the Covered Action was filed and settled.”
On August 29, the SEC announced that it had brought charges against a Chicago-based broker-dealer. The SEC alleged that between August 2012 and September 2020 the broker-dealer failed to file over 400 hundred legally required suspicious financial transaction reports related to over-the-counter securities transactions executed in the broker-dealer’s alternative trading system (ATS). According to the SEC’s order, it was found that the broker-dealer did not establish an anti-money laundering surveillance program until September 2020, despite having thousands of high-risk microcap and penny stock securities transactions executed daily on its ATS.
Daniel R. Gregus, Director of the SEC’s Chicago Regional Office, stated, “All SEC-registered broker-dealers have the responsibility to comply with the requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act, including the obligation to file SARs.”
Without admitting or denying that it violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act and Rule 17a-8, the broker-dealer agreed to a censure and a cease-and-desist order, along with a $1.5 million penalty.
On August 21, the SEC announced charges against a New York-based fintech investment adviser for using hypothetical performance metrics in misleading advertisements, compliance failures that led to misleading disclosures, and failure to adopt policies concerning crypto asset trading by employees, among other things. These charges mark the first violation of the SEC’s amended marketing rule.
According to the order, the fintech investment adviser made misleading statements on its website by failing to include material information, and without having adopted and implemented required policies and procedures under the SEC’s marketing rule. The SEC also found that the company made conflicting disclosures regarding crypto assets custody and failed to adopt policies related to employee personal trading in crypto assets.
The company consented to the order finding that it violated the Advisers Act and without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, entered into a cease-and-desist order, a censure, and agreed to pay $192,454 in disgorgement, prejudgment interest and an $850,000 civil penalty that will be distributed to affected clients.
On August 4, the SEC announced awards totaling more than $104 million to seven whistleblowers whose information and assistance led to a successful SEC enforcement action, as well as two related actions brought by another agency. According to the Press Release, “the seven whistleblowers were composed of two sets of joint claimants and three single claimants, and each provided information that either prompted the opening of or significantly contributed to an SEC investigation.” The seven claimants contributed assistance including providing documentation to support the allegations, identifying potential witnesses, and sitting for interviews. According to the redacted order, Claimants 1 and 2, both foreign nationals, provided information that in part caused the SEC to open the investigation that led to the charges. The whistleblowers also provided substantial ongoing assistance, including providing multiple written submissions, communications, and interviews, the SEC said, finding also that the whistleblower satisfied the requirements under Rules 21-F-3(b) for related actions awards as the related successful enforcement actions were partly based on the same information provided to the Commission. However, in the same order, the SEC affirmed the denial of two other claimants’ award claims after determining, among other things, that the individuals did not submit information leading to the successful enforcement of the covered action.
On July 31, the SEC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against three cryptocurrency trading platforms and their founder for allegedly conducting unregistered offerings of crypto asset securities that raised more than $1 billion in crypto assets from investors. The SEC also claimed that the founder and one of the platforms fraudulently misappropriated at least $12 million of offering proceeds to purchase luxury goods including sports cars, watches, and diamonds.
According to the SEC’s complaint, as early as 2018 the defendants began marketing what they claimed to be the first high-yield “blockchain certificate of deposit,” and promoting tokens as an investment designed to make people “rich.” It is further alleged that from at least December 2019 through November 2020, the defendants offered and sold tokens in an unregistered offering and collected more than 2.3 million cryptocurrency units through “recycling” transactions that enabled the defendants to surreptitiously gain control of more tokens.
The complaint seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus prejudgment interest, penalties, and other equitable relief.
On August 1, the SEC settled for $4.4 million with an investment adviser and entities he founded (collectively, the “respondents”) on charges that they breached both their duty of care and duty of loyalty to their client, an exchange traded fund (ETF), in violation of the Investment Advisers Act and the Investment Company Act. As alleged in the settlement, the respondents needed funds to settle a substantial private litigation judgment, and to secure the funds to do so, committed to keep the client’s security lending business with the company providing the financing to the respondents. However, there were better offers on better terms from other securities lenders that could have provided millions more in revenue to the client, and the respondents did not disclose this information to their client or to the client’s independent trustees. In addition to the civil penalties, without admitting or denying the findings, respondents agreed to various non-monetary penalties, including cease-and-desist orders, an associational bar for the investment adviser and censures for the respondent entities.