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On September 21, the SEC announced a $2.4 million award to a whistleblower in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. The SEC’s press release states that the whistleblower’s “timely submission of information” led to the initiation of an investigation and enforcement action that stopped the ongoing misconduct. The redacted order determining the whistleblower award claim states that the whistleblower’s information helped SEC staff “identify key witnesses and parties and draft targeted subpoenas, which saved the staff time and resources in conducting the investigation.”
Earlier on September 17, the SEC announced a nearly $250,000 joint whistleblower award in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblowers raised their concerns internally before reporting the potential securities violations to the SEC. According to the redacted order, the claimants’ concerns prompted enforcement staff to open an investigation. The order notes, however, that while the claimants’ information identified certain parties and transactions that were ultimately subjects of the covered action, “many of their allegations did not directly relate to the Commission’s charges” in covered action, which played a role in the SEC’s determination of the appropriate award percentage.
The SEC has now paid a total of $523 million to 97 individuals since the inception of the program.
On September 14, the SEC announced a more than $10 million award to a whistleblower in connection with a successful agency enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower’s information and assistance “were of crucial importance” to the action. The redacted order on the whistleblower award claim states that (i) the whistleblower provided “extensive and ongoing assistance,” which included “identifying witnesses and helping staff understand complex fact patterns and issues”; (ii) the SEC used the information to “craft its initial document requests” and create its investigation plan; and (iii) the whistleblower “made persistent efforts to remedy the issues, while suffering hardships.”
On September 11, the SEC announced charges against five Atlanta-based individuals for allegedly promoting unregistered and fraudulent initial coin offerings (ICOs) owned by one of the defendants, a film producer, who promised investors he would build a digital streaming platform and a digital-asset trading platform. Two companies controlled by the film producer that conducted the ICOs were also charged. According to the SEC’s complaint, the film producer, among other things, allegedly misappropriated the funds raised in the ICOs, transferred and sold certain tokens to generate an additional $2.2 million in profits, and engaged in manipulative trading to artificially inflate the price of other tokens. The SEC charged the film producer with violating the registration, antifraud, and anti-manipulation provisions of the federal securities laws. The other defendants were charged with various securities violations, including violating registration, antifraud, and anti-touting provisions for their roles in promoting, offering, selling, or conducting the ICOs. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement, and civil monetary penalties, as well as an officer-and-director bar against the film producer and certain prohibitions against the other defendants.
The SEC’s press release noted that it had entered into proposed settlements subject to court approval with several of the defendants except for the film producer, which would require three of the defendants to each pay a $25,000 penalty and subject them to “conduct-based injunctions prohibiting them from participating in the issuance, purchase, offer, or sale of any digital asset security for a period of five years.” An order reached with another defendant—who neither admitted nor denied the findings—imposes a $75,000 civil monetary penalty and bans the defendant from participating in the offering or sale of digital-asset securities for at least five years.
On September 1, the SEC announced a joint award of $2.5 million to two whistleblowers for providing a tip “based largely on highly probative independent analysis of a public company’s filings,” which led to “several successful enforcement actions.” According to the redacted order, (i) the tip was the “underlying source that formed the basis” for the enforcement action; and (ii) the whistleblowers provided “substantial, ongoing assistance,” helping to focus the investigation and conserve the SEC’s time and resources.
Additionally, on August 31, the SEC announced a $1.25 million award to a whistleblower in connection with a successful enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower provided “significant information,” which “prompted the agency to initiate a cause examination and bring an enforcement action” resulting in “millions of dollars” being returned to harmed investors. The redacted order states that (i) the whistleblower “expeditiously alerted” the SEC to the potential wrongdoing; and (ii) there was “high law enforcement interests” in the information provided.
These press releases also noted that as of September 1, the SEC has awarded 92 individuals a total of approximately $510 million in whistleblower awards since its first award in 2012.
On August 28, the DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced (see here and here) they had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with a multinational nutrition company headquartered in Los Angeles, in which the company agreed to pay a criminal fine of over $55.7 million related to violations of the FCPA’s books and records provisions. According to the DOJ, the company “knowingly and willfully conspired with others in a scheme to falsify its books and records and provide corrupt payments and benefits to Chinese government officials.” Between 2007 and 2016, the company’s books showed that its Chinese subsidiary reimbursed its employees “more than $25 million for entertaining and giving gifts to Chinese government officials and Chinese media personnel. . ., some of which was used for improper purposes,” which the DOJ said was part of a scheme to obtain, retain, and increase business in China and remove negative media reports about the subsidiary. The payments were used to obtain and retain “certain direct selling licenses for its wholly-owned subsidiaries in China” and to “improperly influenc[e] certain Chinese governmental investigations into [the subsidiary’s] compliance with Chinese laws,” as well as to influence state-owned or controlled media.
As part of the deferred prosecution agreement, the company agreed to cooperate with the DOJ’s ongoing or future criminal investigations and to enhance its compliance program. The company received credit for cooperating with the investigation and taking remedial measures such as “terminating and disciplining individuals who orchestrated the misconduct, adopting heightened controls and anti-corruption protocols, and significantly increasing the resources devoted to compliance.”
The SEC simultaneously announced a resolution in which the company agreed to pay over $58.6 million in disgorgement and more than $8.6 million in prejudgment interest to settle allegations that the company violated the FCPA’s books and records and internal accounting controls provisions.
On August 10, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), SEC, and the CFTC announced separate settlements with a broker-dealer following investigations into its anti-money laundering (AML) programs. The broker-dealer did not admit or deny any of the charges, and the agencies all considered remedial actions undertaken by the broker-dealer. FINRA fined the broker-dealer $15 million for allegedly failing to establish and implement AML processes reasonably designed to detect and report suspicious transactions as required by the Bank Secrecy Act, including foreign currency wire transfers to and from countries known to be at high risk for money laundering. Additionally, the broker-dealer “lacked sufficient personnel and a reasonably designed case management system.” The broker-dealer consented to the terms of the Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent and agreed to retain a third-party consultant to take steps to remediate its AML program.
In a separate investigation conducted by the SEC, the broker-dealer reached a settlement to resolve allegations that it repeatedly failed to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) as required by the Exchange Act for U.S. microcap securities trades executed on behalf of its customers. According to the SEC, because the broker-dealer’s “AML policies and procedures were not reasonably tailored to the risks of [its] U.S. microcap securities business,” over a one-year period, it failed to (i) recognize red flags; (ii) properly investigate suspicious activity; and (iii) file more than 150 SARs in a timely fashion even after compliance personnel flagged the suspicious transactions. Under the terms of the order, the broker-dealer has agreed to be censured, will cease and desist from committing future violations, and will pay an $11.5 million civil penalty.
The CFTC also announced a settlement to resolve allegations that the broker-dealer failed to (i) diligently supervise the handling of several commodity trading accounts; (ii) sufficiently oversee its employees’ handling of these accounts, leading to its “failure to maintain an adequate [AML] program and to conduct appropriate customer monitoring”; and (iii) identify or conduct adequate investigations necessary to detect and report suspicious transactions. Under the order, the broker-dealer is required to pay an $11.5 million civil penalty and disgorge $706,214 it earned as the futures commission merchant for certain accounts that were the subject of a 2018 CFTC enforcement action.
On August 12, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations issued a risk alert to broker-dealers and investment advisers (firms) impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic addressing observations and recommendations related to several categories, including investor asset protection; personnel supervision; practices related to fees, expenses, and financial transactions; investment fraud; business continuity; and protecting sensitive information. The alert recommends firms review—and where appropriate—modify supervisory and compliance policies and procedures as they deal with market volatility and technological challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic. The alert notes that firms may need to update their practices to address, among other things, (i) unusual or unscheduled investor withdrawals; (ii) staffers communicating or executing transactions off-site or on personal devices, or making securities recommendations tied to market sectors experiencing high volatility or fraud; and (iii) supervisors having less oversight and interaction with staff in remote environments, leading to difficulties in maintaining effective due diligence, conducting background checks when hiring, or overseeing requisite examinations. Additionally, firms are instructed to monitor potential conflicts of interest and fee errors when informing investors about the costs of services, investment products, and related compensation, while also ensuring recommendations are made in the “best interest of investors.” The alert also recognizes that “times of crisis or uncertainty can create a heightened risk of investment fraud through fraudulent offerings,” and advises firms to “be cognizant of these risks when conducting due diligence on investments and in determining that the investments are in the best interest of investors.” Firms and investors who suspect fraud are advised to contact the SEC and report the potential fraud.
On August 6, the SEC announced that a South Carolina-based consumer loan company agreed to pay over $21.7 million to settle the SEC’s claims that the company violated the books and records and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA through its Mexican loan operations. According to the SEC, the company’s former Mexican subsidiary paid more than $4 million in bribes, “directly or through intermediaries, to Mexican government officials and union officials, from at least December 2010 through June 2017 to obtain and retain business” related to the offering of small loans to state and federal government employees. The SEC alleged that in order to “retain the ability to make loans to government employees under all of the contracts” and to ensure loan repayments were made in a timely manner, the former subsidiary paid bribes in several ways, including (i) cash payments; (ii) making deposits into bank accounts linked to government officials and union officials or those of their relatives and friends; and (iii) hiring third-party intermediaries to assist in securing business and making bribe payments, including large bags of cash, to officials.
These bribes, the SEC alleged, were then inaccurately recorded in the company’s books and records as “legitimate ‘commission’ expenses.” The SEC also found that the company and its former subsidiary lacked “internal accounting controls sufficient to detect or prevent such payments,” and that as a result of the subsidiary’s failure to implement a sufficient accounts payable system, managers pre-signed blank checks, which made “it impossible to enforce authorization limits in place over payments.” The SEC further alleged that while the former subsidiary sent spreadsheets to the parent company each month detailing the payments, the company did not require invoices or back-up support to account for the expenses and failed to identify the high risk of bribery and corruption in Mexico. Additionally, the SEC noted that despite incorporating an FCPA policy into the company’s corporate compliance manual in 2013, there was no effective formal monitoring or internal controls to ensure the former subsidiary complied with the policy. The company also allegedly lacked personnel oversight in Mexico, and “the tone at the top” from company management “did not support robust internal audit and compliance functions,” leading to several material weaknesses.
In entering into the administrative order, the SEC considered the company’s cooperation and remedial efforts. Without admitting or denying wrongdoing, the company consented to a cease and desist order, and agreed to pay a $2 million civil money penalty and approximately $19.7 million in disgorgement and pre-judgment interest.
On July 28, the SEC announced the creation of the Event and Emerging Risks Examination Team (EERT), which will “proactively engage with financial firms about emerging threats and current market events.” Specifically, the new team will be held in the agency’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) and will work collaboratively with OCIE’s exam staff in regional offices to, among other things, (i) ensure that firms are “better prepared” to address existing threats and emerging risks; and (ii) provide expertise and support in response to market events that place investor assets at risk, such as cyber-security or operational resiliency concerns.
On July 17, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a joint statement on the EU - U.S. Financial Regulatory Forum, which met virtually on July 14 and 15 and included participants from Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, CFTC, FDIC, SEC, and OCC. Forum participants discussed six key themes: (i) potential financial stability implications and economic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic; (ii) capital market supervisory and regulatory cooperation, including cross-border supervision; (iii) “multilateral and bilateral engagement in banking and insurance,” including “cross-border resolution of systemic banks” and Volcker Rule implementation; (iv) approaches to anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism financing and remittances; (v) the regulation and supervision of digital finance and financial innovation, such as “digital operational resilience and developments in crypto-assets, so-called stablecoins, and central bank digital currencies”; and (vi) sustainable finance developments. EU and U.S. participants recognized the importance of communicating mutual supervisory and regulatory concerns to “support financial stability, investor protection, market integrity, and a level playing field.”
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Making customers whole: Trends in remediation and restitution expectations" at the American Bar Association Business Law Virtual Section Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fairness gone viral: Fair lending considerations for financial institutions amid Covid-19" at the American Bar Association Business Law Virtual Section Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "High standards: Best practices for banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Wait wait ... do tell me! Where the panelists answer to you" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Matthew P. Previn and Walter E. Zalenski to discuss "Is valid when made ... valid?" at the Women in Housing & Finance Partner Series webinar
- Warren W. Traiger and Caroline K. Eisner to discuss "CRA modernization and the OCC final rule" at CBA Live
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Transnational corruption: A chat with former U.S. federal prosecutors in New York" at Marval Live Talks
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk and Lauren Frank to discuss "New CFPB interpretation on UDAAP" at a California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality and Compliance Committee webinar
- Thomas A. Sporkin to discuss "Managing internal investigations and advanced government defense" at the Securities Enforcement Forum
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Independent monitoring in the United States" at the World Compliance Association Peru Chapter IV International Conference on Compliance and the Fight Against Corruption
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The future of fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Pandemic fallout – Navigating practical operational challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute