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On November 18, the U.S. House passed the Investor Protection and Capital Markets Fairness Act (H.R. 4344) by a vote of 314-95. The bill, which was received in the Senate, would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, which limits the SEC’s disgorgement power and subjects the agency to the five-year statute of limitations applicable to penalties and fines. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) As discussed in a recent Buckley article, in Kokesh’s wake, H.R. 4344 would amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by specifically authorizing the SEC to seek disgorgement and restitution, putting to rest the threshold question of whether the SEC has the authority to seek disgorgement. Notably, on November 1, the Court granted certiorari in SEC v. Liu to answer this very question. If signed into the law, H.R. 4344 would allow the SEC 14 years to pursue disgorgement in federal court under the statute of limitations.
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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied petitions from three whistleblowers seeking awards following a $55 million settlement between the SEC and a global financial institution, which the SEC previously denied. According to the opinion, multiple individuals disclosed information to the SEC during an investigation into the financial institution’s financial statements. In 2015, the SEC reached a settlement with the institution, and nine whistleblower claimants filed applications to receive awards based on the information they provided. The SEC granted the applications for two claimants and denied the rest. The three individuals involved in this action were denied the awards because the SEC concluded that the individuals “did not provide ‘original information that led to a successful enforcement action,’” as required by the Securities and Exchange Act’s whistleblower provisions. Specifically, for the two named individuals, the SEC determined that it had already received the information they provided through an individual known as “Claimant 2,” who had previously submitted an expert report prepared by the two individuals to the SEC. The appellate court agreed with the determination made by the SEC, concluding that “their  submission did not significantly contribute to the success of the  action; Claimant 2ʹs submissions did.” The appellate court noted that the individual’s expert report did not qualify for Rule 21F‐4’s “original source exception,” which was designed to treat information submitted to another federal agency as though it had been submitted to the SEC directly.
As for the third, unnamed individual, the appellate court also denied the petition, concluding that the unnamed individual’s interpretation of the whistleblower program would “disincentivise whistleblowers from curating their submissions.” Specifically, the SEC asserted that the unnamed individual “‘appeared to be very disjointed and had difficulty articulating credible and coherent information concerning any potential violation of the federal securities laws’” and “‘brought with him to the meeting a wet brown paper bag containing what he claimed to be evidence.’” The SEC further noted that the documents were “jumbled and disorganized” and ultimately used similar information brought by a subsequent whistleblower. The appellate court noted that “[a] whistleblower might still be rewarded for being the first to bring incriminating information to the SECʹs attention, but only if that information is contained in a credible, and ultimately useful submission.”
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 24, the CFTC, FDIC, OCC, and SEC announced that they joined the Global Financial Innovation Network (GFIN). GFIN was created by the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority in 2018 and is an international network of 50 organizations, including the CFPB and other financial regulators. As previously covered by InfoBytes, GFIN members are committed to supporting financial innovation by (i) collaborating on innovation and providing accessible regulatory contact information for firms; (ii) providing a forum for joint regulation technology work; and (iii) providing firms with an environment in which to trial cross-border solutions. According to the FDIC’s announcement, “[p]articipation in the GFIN furthers these objectives and enhances the agencies’ abilities to encourage responsible innovation in the financial services industry in the United States and abroad.”
On October 17, House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif) and Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to the heads of the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, OCC, SEC, and CFTC to oppose the federal financial regulators’ recent approval of changes to the Volcker Rule. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.) According to Waters and Brown, the final revisions—which are designed to simplify and tailor compliance with Section 13 of the Bank Holding Company Act’s restrictions on a bank’s ability to engage in proprietary trading and own certain funds—“open the door to the very risky, speculative activities that Congress sought to prohibit.” Specifically, the letter addresses rollback concerns such as (i) narrowing the definition of a “trading account,” which would weaken the short-term intent prong; (ii) “eliminating metrics reporting”; (iii) “removing activity restrictions on non-U.S. banks”; and (iv) “expanding permitted activity related to covered funds.” Waters and Brown urged the regulators to reconsider their decision to adopt the revisions, and requested that they be provided with the data and metrics used by the regulators during their analysis, as well as the regulators’ justification for “eliminating or reducing the information and data reported by banking entities.”
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 October 11, the SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a joint statement to remind persons who engage in digital asset activities or handle cryptocurrency transactions of their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the agencies, AML/CFT obligations apply to entities defined as “financial institutions” under the Bank Secrecy Act, which include “futures commission merchants and introducing brokers obligated to register with the CFTC, money services businesses (MSB) as defined by FinCEN, and broker-dealers and mutual funds obligated to register with the SEC.” The obligations include, among other things, (i) establishing and implementing an effective AML program; and (ii) complying with recordkeeping and reporting requirements such as suspicious activity reporting (SARs).
The agencies note that persons who engage in digital asset-related activities may have AML/CFT obligations regardless of the “label or terminology used to describe a digital asset or a person engaging in or providing financial activities or services involving a digital asset.” According to the agencies, the facts and circumstances underlying the asset or service, “including its economic reality and use,” is what determines how the asset is categorized, the applicable regulatory treatment, and whether the persons involved are financial institution under the BSA.
Additionally, FinCEN reminded financial institutions of its supervisory and enforcement authority to “ensure the effectiveness of the AML/CFT regime,” emphasizing that persons who provide money transmission services are MSBs subject to FinCEN regulation. FinCEN also referred to its May 2019 interpretive guidance, which consolidated and clarified current FinCEN regulations, guidance, and administrative rulings related to money transmissions involving virtual currency. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
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.
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss “Beneficial Ownership: You have questions – We have quick answers” at the ABA/ABA Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "Legal & regulatory issues – Next wave of regulatory policy" at the Marketplace Lending & Alternative Financing Summit
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Risk management in enforcement actions: Managing risk or micromanaging it" at an American Bar Association webinar
- Kari K. Hall and Christopher M. Walczyszyn to speak on the "Understanding updates to Regulation CC to ensure effective check processing" at a National Association of Federal Credit Unions webinar
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "ACAMS Moneylaundering.com Year-End Compliance Review and 2020 Outlook" at an ACAMS webinar
- APPROVED Webcast: Periodic reporting made easier
- 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