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On November 30, a U.S.-based agriculture company disclosed in an SEC filing that it is cooperating with an investigation being conducted by the SEC and DOJ involving payments made to Mexican customs officials. The payments were made in connection with grain shipments crossing the U.S.-Mexican border by train. The company is a Fortune 100 company that is owned primarily by farmer and rancher cooperatives and has extensive operations in the energy sector in addition to agriculture.
The SEC filing states that the company voluntarily self-disclosed the potential violations and stressed the company’s full cooperation with the investigation, which includes “investigating other areas of potential interest to the government.” The DOJ has placed great emphasis on the importance of voluntary self-disclosure and cooperation in recent policy statements. See previous Scorecard coverage here. This investigation is noteworthy because while investigations in the energy sector are common, investigations in the agricultural sector are less so. The eventual resolution of this investigation may provide useful guidance for other agribusiness companies.
On November 19, the SEC announced a settlement with a Texas offshore drilling company based on the improper activities of the company’s predecessor in connection with a Brazilian oil company bribery scheme. The Administrative Order found that the offshore drilling company had “failed to devise a system of internal accounting controls with regard to [its] transactions with [its] former outside director, largest shareholder, and only supplier of drilling assets . . . and failed to properly implement internal accounting controls related to its use of third-party marketing agents,” noting the company’s “ineffective anticorruption compliance program.” According to the Order, these failures permitted payments that “created a risk that [it] was providing or reimbursing funds that [a director] intended to use to make improper payments to" the Brazilian company at the center of a massive FCPA scheme.
The settlement with the SEC concludes the company’s involvement in the Brazilian company's investigations. According to the drilling company, they received a cooperation letter from the DOJ last year confirming the company’s full cooperation in the Brazilian company's investigation, and that the DOJ would not move forward with any actions against the drilling company.
Further coverage of the Brazilian oil company matter is available here.
On November 15, the SEC released its 2018 Annual Report to Congress on its Whistleblower Program, as required under § 924(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act and § 21(F)(g)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Report, which covers October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018, indicates that the SEC received 202 FCPA-related whistleblower tips during the reporting year. Those 202 FCPA tips account for only 3.82 percent of the tips received in that period. While the overall number of whistleblower tips has steadily risen over the past 4 years, the number of FCPA tips has remained fairly steady. In 2015, there were 186 (4.74 percent of the tips received); in 2016 there were 238 (5.64 percent of the tips received); and in 2017 there were 210 (4.68 percent of the tips received). This relative consistency contrasts with the number of offering fraud tips, which jumped from 758 in 2017 to 1,054 in 2018.
In addition to providing statistics and background on the whistleblower program, the Report discusses rule amendments proposed earlier this year. In particular, the Report reviews proposed amendments to SEC Rule 21F-2 (Whistleblower Status and Retaliation Protection) that are intended to bring the rules in line with the Digital Realty Trust v. Somers decision. The proposed amendments would include instituting a uniform definition of whistleblower that requires the individual to have submitted the information “in writing” to the SEC.
On November 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a cryptocurrency company, concluding the agency failed show the currency tokens were “securities” as defined under federal securities laws. According to the order, the SEC filed a complaint against the company in October alleging it falsely claimed its initial coin offering (ICO) was registered and approved by the SEC and other regulators, including using the agency’s seal in marketing materials. At the time of the filing, the SEC claimed the company had already raised more than $2.5 million in pre-ICO sales. The SEC moved for a preliminary injunction to freeze the company’s assets and prevent the company’s owner from buying or selling securities and other digital currency during the pendency of the case. Upon review, the court noted the SEC must establish the company previously violated federal securities laws and there is a reasonable likelihood that it will happen again. The SEC argued the allegedly fraudulent marketing materials used to raise money from 32 “test investors” violated federal securities laws, while the company argued the investors did not have an expectation to receive profits as they were working with the company on the exchange’s functionality and therefore, the currency tokens were not “securities.” The court denied the SEC’s motion, concluding that it could not determine whether the tokens were “securities” under federal law without full discovery as there were disputed issues of material facts, including what the test investors relied on in terms of marketing materials before they purchased the cryptocurrency tokens.
On November 16, the SEC announced cryptocurrency-related settlements imposing civil money penalties against two companies that allegedly offered and sold digital tokens through initial coin offerings (ICO). The settlements are the SEC’s first cases imposing civil money penalties based solely on alleged ICO securities offering registration violations. According to the SEC, the two companies allegedly violated the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 by offering and selling ICO tokens without (i) registering them pursuant to federal securities laws; or (ii) qualifying for an exemption to registration requirements. Under the terms of the settlement agreements (available here and here), the companies—who have neither admitted nor denied the findings—have each agreed to pay a $250,000 civil money penalty, and will also (i) return funds to impacted investors; (ii) register the digital tokens as securities; and (iii) file periodic reports with the SEC.
On November 14, 2018, a three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments for a life science research and diagnostics company hoping to overturn a February 2017 jury verdict ordering the company to pay its former General Counsel and Secretary $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The former employee’s complaint alleged that the company had fired him for being an FCPA whistleblower. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the company paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former employee’s report to the Audit Committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China, allegations that did not result in additional penalties against the company.
The company appealed the former employee's award on the grounds that the jury was erroneously instructed that the SEC’s rules or regulations forbid bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations were the result of the former employee’s lack of due diligence; that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to the timing of his pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that he did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank in light of his reporting only internally and not to the SEC (pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in another case). During the argument, one member of the circuit panel reportedly expressed doubt concerning the company’s jury instruction argument, and another told counsel for the company, “I don’t see how this can be reversed on the theory you’re offering.”
On November 8, the SEC announced its first enforcement action settlement with a digital currency platform for allegedly operating as an unregistered national securities exchange. According to the cease-and-desist order, the founder of the digital currency exchange, who has since sold the exchange to foreign buyers, allegedly violated federal securities laws by providing an online platform for secondary market trading of digital assets, including ERC20 tokens, without registering with the Commission or operating pursuant to a registration exemption. ERC20 tokens are digital assets issued and distributed on the Ethereum Blockchain using the ERC20 protocol, which, according to the SEC, is the standard coding protocol currently used by a significant majority of issuers in initial coin offerings. The order emphasizes that 92 percent of the trades on the exchange took place after the SEC released its Report of Investigation Pursuant To Section 21(a) Of The Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO (the DAO Report) in July 2017, advising that non-exempt digital currency exchanges must register with the Commission. Without admitting or denying the findings, the founder agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus interest and a $75,000 penalty.
On October 18, the SEC announced the launch of its Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology (FinHub). According to the SEC, FinHub will assist in facilitating public engagement on fintech-related topics, including blockchain/distributed ledger technology, digital marketplace financing, automated investment advice, and artificial intelligence/machine learning. Through FinHub, industry participants and the public will have the opportunity to engage directly with the SEC to discuss and test innovative ideas and technological developments. FinHub will also act as a clearinghouse for SEC staff to access and disseminate fintech-related information throughout the agency, and will “[s]erve as a liaison to other domestic and international regulators regarding emerging technologies in financial, regulatory, and supervisory systems.”
“FinHub provides a central point of focus for our efforts to monitor and engage on innovations in the securities markets that hold promise, but which also require a flexible, prompt regulatory response to execute our mission,” SEC Chairman Jay Clayton announced.
On October 3, 2018, Steven Peiken, Co-Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, offered remarks at a white collar crime conference in New York City, discussing a range of issues related to FCPA compliance and enforcement. For example, likely responding to increasing criticism about the relatively few enforcement cases that have been brought by the SEC in recent years, Peiken addressed questions regarding the Enforcement Division’s effectiveness and efficiency metrics, noting that the Division is moving away from quantitative measurements of success to more qualitative metrics, such as whether retail investors are adequately protected and whether the agency is “keeping pace with technological change.”
In addition, Peiken addressed the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kokesh v. SEC, which held that disgorgement awards are punitive in nature and subject to a five year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462. Peiken stated: “The impact of Kokesh has been felt across our enforcement program. A few months ago, we calculated that Kokesh led us to forego seeking approximately $800 million in potential disgorgement in filed and settled cases. That number continues to rise.”
Peikin concluded his remarks by noting that the Enforcement Division cannot continue to rely upon quantitative metrics to determine success, such as the size of awards and penalties. Instead, the Division must adopt “a nuanced and qualitative evaluation of our overall impact on achieving our investor and market integrity protection mission.” These remarks suggest that the rate of new actions and investigations filed by SEC’s Enforcement Division may not keep pace with recent years, and that the Division may instead be relying on impact cases or those that satisfy the more qualitative metrics Peikin described, when measuring success going forward.
On September 28, the SEC announced a settlement with a Michigan-based medical device company to resolve the SEC’s charges of books and records and internal controls violations. According to the order, the company agreed to pay a $7.8 million penalty and accepted the imposition of an independent compliance consultant to resolve allegations that the company’s Indian subsidiary failed to maintain accurate books and records, and that the company’s internal controls were inadequate to identify possible improper payments related to the sale of its products in India, China, and Kuwait.
This is the second enforcement action the SEC has brought against the company in recent years. In a prior action in October 2013, the company paid over $13.2 million in penalties, disgorgement, and interest to settle charges of FCPA violations for bribing doctors, health care professionals, and other government-employed officials in Argentina, Greece, Mexico, Poland, and Romania.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Trends in regulatory enforcement" at the American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Meeting
- Jessica L. Pollet to discuss "Your career is impacting your life..." at the Ark Group Women Legal Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Successors in interest updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo