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On March 29, the SEC announced a more than $500,000 whistleblower award in connection with an enforcement action. According to the redacted order, the whistleblower raised concerns about alleged securities violations internally, which prompted an investigation by the company. The company then reported the information to an outside agency, which in turn made a referral to Commission staff, thus prompting the opening of the SEC’s investigation. The SEC noted that the whistleblower also provided helpful documents and met with Commission staff, allowing the SEC and another agency to quickly file actions and shut down the ongoing fraudulent scheme. Additionally, the SEC explained that because the whistleblower also submitted a tip to the SEC within 120 days of reporting the violations internally to the company, the whistleblower satisfied the SEC’s whistleblower rule’s “safe harbor” provision, thereby allowing the SEC to treat the whistleblower’s information “as though it had been made on the date that the [whistleblower] provided that same information to his/her employer.”
The SEC has now paid approximately $760 million to 145 individuals since the inception of the whistleblower program in 2012. The Commission noted that, with this award, it has now “awarded 40 individuals this fiscal year, surpassing last year’s record of 39 individual awards,” and has “awarded whistleblowers nearly $200 million in the first half of FY21 alone.”
On March 9, the SEC announced an approximately $1.5 million whistleblower award in connection with a successful enforcement action. According to the redacted order, the whistleblower provided information that led to the opening of the investigation, and assisted enforcement staff by providing multiple written submissions and identifying potential witnesses. The whistleblower also met with enforcement staff multiple times to explain information.
Earlier, on March 4, the SEC announced a more than $5 million joint award to two whistleblowers who alerted enforcement staff to misconduct occurring abroad that would otherwise “have been difficult to detect.” According to the redacted order, the whistleblowers voluntarily submitted a joint tip that led to the opening of the investigation, and continued to assist enforcement staff by providing information that directly supported certain allegations in the enforcement action. However, in the same order, the SEC affirmed denial of two other claimants’ award claims after determining that the individuals did not submit information leading to the successful enforcement of the covered action. The SEC noted, among other things, that these claimants’ tips did not cause the opening of the investigation and that the information provided related to conduct by “entirely different companies” and was not used in the covered action.
The SEC has now paid approximately $759 million to 143 individuals since the inception of the whistleblower program in 2012.
Last month, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a bipartisan report titled “The Art Industry and U.S. Policies that Undermine Sanctions,” which details findings from a two-year investigation related to how Russian oligarchs appear to have used the art industry to evade U.S. sanctions. According to the Subcommittee, the investigation—which focused on major auction houses, private New York art dealers, and seven financial institutions—revealed that the “secretive nature” of the art industry “allowed art intermediaries to purchase more than $18 million in high-value art in the United States through shell companies linked to Russian oligarchs after they were sanctioned by the United States in March 2014,” and that, moreover, “the shell companies linked to the Russian oligarchs were not limited to just art and engaged in a total of $91 million in post-sanctions transactions.” The report claims that the art industry is largely unregulated, and, unlike financial institutions, is not subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and is not required to maintain anti-money laundering (AML) and anti-terrorism financing controls. However, the report notes that sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) do apply to the industry, emphasizing that U.S. persons are not allowed to conduct business with sanctioned individuals or entities.
The Subcommittee’s key findings include that while four of the major auction houses have established voluntary AML controls, they treat an art agent or advisor as the principal purchaser of the art, which allows the auction house to perform due diligence on the art agent or advisor instead of identifying and evaluating a potentially undisclosed client. The auction houses also reportedly rely on financial institutions to identify the source of funds used to purchase the art. Because of these practices, the report concludes that these shell companies continue to have access to the U.S. financial system despite the imposition of sanctions.
The report makes several recommendations including: (i) the BSA should be amended to include businesses that handle transactions involving high-value art; (ii) Treasury should be required to collect beneficial ownership information for companies formed or registered to do business in the U.S., making the information available to law enforcement; (iii) Treasury should consider imposing sanctions on a sanctioned individual’s immediate family members; (iv) Treasury should announce and implement sanctions concurrently “to avoid creating a window of opportunity for individuals to avoid sanctions”; (v) the ownership threshold for blocking companies owned by sanctioned individuals should be lowered or removed; (vi) Treasury should maximize its use of suspicious activity reports filed by financial institutions to, among other things, alert other financial institutions of the risks of transacting with sanctioned entities; (vii) OFAC should issue comprehensive guidance for auction houses and art dealers on steps for determining “whether a person is the principal seller or purchaser of art or is acting on behalf of an undisclosed client, and which person should be subject to a due diligence review”; and (viii) OFAC should issue guidance on “the informational exception to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act related to ‘artworks.’”
Additionally, in June, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (AMLA) as an amendment (S.Amdt 2198 to S.4049) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would, among many other things, require federal agencies to study “the facilitation of money laundering and the financing of terrorism through the trade of works of art or antiquities” and, if appropriate, propose rulemaking to implement the study’s findings within 180 days of the AMLA’s enactment.
On May 4, the SEC announced a nearly $2 million award to a whistleblower in an enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower’s “information and assistance helped the agency bring a successful enforcement action and allowed investors to recover much of their money.” The formal order also states that the whistleblower, among other things, provided new information regarding an investigation into ongoing fraud, which informed the SEC’s need to “expeditiously seek a temporary restraining order and asset freeze to prevent further investor loss.” The whistleblower also suffered hardships.
As of May 4, the SEC has awarded 82 individuals a total of approximately $450 million in whistleblower awards since its first award in 2012.
On April 28, the SEC announced an award of more than $18 million to a whistleblower in an enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower’s “significant information prompted an examination that resulted in an important enforcement action.” The formal order also states that the whistleblower, among other things, relayed information that alerted SEC staff to potential securities violations, and repeatedly raised concerns internally “in an attempt to immediately correct the problem,” which led to the whistleblower suffering hardships as a result. The SEC further emphasizes that the enforcement action resulted in millions of dollars being returned to retail investors.
As of April 28, the SEC has awarded 81 individuals a total of approximately $448 million in whistleblower awards since its first award in 2012.
On March 24, the SEC announced awards of over $570,000 to two whistleblowers for providing “significant information and assistance that helped the Commission bring multiple successful enforcement actions.” According to the formal order, the first whistleblower received an award of approximately $478,000, and the second whistleblower received an award of approximately $94,000. The SEC stated that the first whistleblower’s award was substantially higher because the information (i) helped the SEC bring antifraud charges related to conduct that was ongoing at the time the whistleblower reported the information to the SEC; (ii) played a critical role in the development of the case; and (iii) related to all the enforcement actions. In comparison, the second whistleblower’s information—while important—contributed to charges brought against only one of the respondents, the SEC stated.
Earlier on March 23, the SEC announced an award of over $1.6 million to a whistleblower in an enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower “provided helpful assistance early in the investigation, preserving Commission time and resources,” and “helped form part of the basis for charges brought in a successful enforcement action.” The formal order—which acknowledged that the allegations reported by the whistleblower “would have been hard to detect”—stated, however, that while the whistleblower “unreasonably delayed” reporting the allegations, the SEC chose not to factor in the delay as severely as it might have done had the delay occurred entirely after the Dodd-Frank Act established the whistleblower award program.
The SEC’s March 24 press release states that it has awarded 76 individuals a total of approximately $396 million in whistleblower awards since its initial award in 2012.
On February 28, the SEC announced an award of over $7 million to a whistleblower in an enforcement action. According to the SEC’s press release, the whistleblower “provided extensive and sustained assistance, such as identifying witnesses,” which was “critically important to the success of [the] enforcement action.” The formal order also states that the whistleblower helped the SEC “understand complex fact patterns” and that “[t]he whistleblower’s information and assistance helped the SEC staff devise an investigative plan, craft document requests, and ultimately bring an important enforcement action focusing on serious financial abuses.”
The SEC’s press release states that it has awarded 73 individuals a total of approximately $394 million in whistleblower awards since 2012.
On September 5, NYDFS announced a new investigation into the student debt relief industry. NYDFS is issuing subpoenas to eight student debt relief companies to investigate deceptive practices in the industry, including misrepresenting the ability to achieve debt relief and charging improper fees. According to NYDFS, “deceptive” student debt relief companies charge borrowers high fees to consolidate their multiple student loans, while the U.S. Department of Education will offer the same programs free of charge. NYDFS estimates that New York residents collectively owe over $86 billion in student loans.
On February 25, the CFPB petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for an order requiring a debt collection law office to comply with a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau in June 2017. The CID requested information from the debt collection firm as part of a Bureau investigation into whether debt collectors, furnishers, or other persons associated with the collection of debt and furnishing of information have engaged or are engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices in violation of the CFPA, FDCPA, and FCRA. According to the petition, the firm partially responded but withheld several responses asserting that doing so would require the firm's principal to violate professional responsibility rules in the states of New York and New Jersey. Withheld information, the Bureau claims, includes telephone calls and written correspondence with indebted consumers, disputes with consumers over the firm's credit reporting activities to third party agencies, and service contracts with creditors on whose behalf the firm collects debt. The Bureau argued that the court should direct the law firm to comply with the CID because, aside from following all applicable procedural requirements for the issuance of a CID contained within the CFPA, it “has shown that the investigation is being conducted for a legitimate purpose, that the inquiries may be relevant to that purpose, that the information sought is not already within the Bureau's possession, and that the administrative steps required by the [CFPA] and its implementing regulations have been followed. . . .” The Bureau further requested an order that the firm show cause and explain why it should not be compelled to comply with the CID.
On December 18, NYDFS announced a $15 million settlement with an international bank and its New York branch resolving allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program. According to the announcement, NYDFS’ investigation determined that several members of senior management failed to follow or apply the bank’s whistleblower policies and procedures, which allegedly allowed the bank’s CEO to attempt to identify the author(s) of two whistleblowing letters criticizing his and bank’s management’s roles in recruiting and employing a recently hired senior executive. Additionally, the investigation found that, in alleged violation of New York Banking Law, the bank (i) failed to devise and implement effective governance and controls with respect to the whistleblower program; and (ii) failed to submit a report to NYDFS immediately upon discovering misconduct.
NYDFS acknowledged the bank’s substantial cooperation in the investigation, including engaging an outside consultant to perform an independent review of the whistleblowing policies, processes, and controls. Additionally NYDFS stated the bank has already addressed certain deficiencies noted in the Consent Order, including implementing (i) procedures which recognize that concerns raised outside whistleblowing channels may nevertheless constitute whistleblows; (ii) procedures which would avoid escalating a whistleblow to the subject of the concern; and (c) procedures to preserve whistleblower anonymity. In addition to the $15 million penalty, the bank must create a written plan to improve compliance and oversight of the whistleblower program and submit a report to NYDFS that contains all instances of whistleblower complaints since January 2017, attempts to identify whistleblowers, and any reported or sustained instances of whistleblower retaliation.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to moderate “Pandemic relief response and lasting impacts on access, credit, banking, and equality” at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Spring Meeting
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Post-pandemic CFPB exam preparation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Making fair lending work for you" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Reading the tea leaves of President Biden’s initial financial appointees" at LendIt Fintech
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss “CA, NY, federal licensing and disclosure” at the Equipment Leasing & Finance Association Legal Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Compliance under Biden" at the WSJ Risk & Compliance Forum
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference