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  • Supreme Court to review whether SEC’s ALJ appointment process is constitutional

    Courts

    On January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a writ of certiorari in Lucia v. SEC—a case which challenges the SEC’s practice of appointing administrative law judges (ALJs) and moves the Court to consider whether the ALJ appointment practice violates the Appointments Clause (Clause) of the Constitution. In Lucia, the petitioner—against whom an ALJ had issued sanctions, imposed a lifetime securities ban, and fined $300,000—appealed the decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and argued that ALJs are officers of the United States and therefore subject to provisions of the Clause, including the requirement that officers be appointed by the president, the head of a department, or a court of law. However, the D.C. Circuit upheld the ALJs sanctions and ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” subject to the Clause. In his petition for certiorari, the petitioner claimed that because he was subjected to a “trial before an unconstitutionally constituted tribunal,” the ALJ’s decision should be dismissed or a new hearing granted.

    Notably, last November, the Solicitor General of the United States submitted a brief on behalf of the SEC to the Supreme Court, arguing that the SEC views in-house judges as officers of the U.S. government—not mere employees—who are subject to the Clause. Additionally, on November 30, the SEC ratified the appointment of its ALJs to resolve “any concerns that administrative proceedings presided over by its ALJs violate the Appointments Clause.”

    A decision by the Court may resolve a split between the D.C. Circuit, which has ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” of the U.S. government, and the Tenth and Fifth Circuits, which disagreed and ruled separately that ALJs are officers.

    See also previous Lucia coverage in an InfoBytes blog post and a Special Alert concerning the effect a decision in Lucia may have on the ongoing litigation in PHH v. CFPB.

    Courts SEC ALJ U.S. Supreme Court PHH v. CFPB

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  • FINRA Fines Brokerage Firm $2.8 Million for Customer Protection Rule Violations

    Securities

    On December 27, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that it fined a New York-based brokerage firm $2.8 million based on allegations that the firm violated the SEC’s Customer Protection Rule and due to other related supervisory failures. According to the Letter of Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC), from March 2008 to June 2016, the firm did not have reasonable processes in place to ensure that its control systems were operating properly.  As a result of these design flaws, the firm failed to properly segregate customers’ foreign and domestic securities in appropriate control locations, leading to deficits in securities valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.” The firm neither admitted nor denied the findings set forth in the AWC agreement.

    Securities FINRA Enforcement SEC

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  • SEC Obtains Emergency Court Order Against Canadian Firm for Allegedly Violating Federal Securities Law; Halts Initial Coin Offering

    Securities

    On December 4, the SEC announced it had obtained an emergency court order to freeze the assets of a Canadian company and the company’s founders (Defendants) and block Defendants’ ability to continue to raise funds through an initial coin offering (ICO). At the time the order was issued, the ICO had raised $15 million since August by “promising investors returns of 1,354% in under 29 days.” This is the first enforcement action taken by the SEC’s recently established Cyber Unit, whose focus includes distributed ledger technology and initial coin offering violations. (See previous InfoBytes Cyber Unit coverage here.)

    According to a complaint filed December 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Defendants allegedly violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of U.S. federal securities laws by making a series of materially false and misleading statements when marketing and selling securities as digital tokens/cryptocurrencies to obtain investor funds. From August to the present, Defendants purportedly raised $15 million through the ICO, and made false representations including, among other things, that: (i) the firm consisted of large teams of experts across the globe, and (ii) investors would receive certain promised returns (1,354% in less than a month) on investments if all tokens were sold. Further, Defendants allegedly failed to disclose (i) that a portion of the proceeds from the ICO funds would pay personal expenses, and (ii) that the company’s principal executive was “a known recidivist securities law violator in Canada.” The SEC seeks relief in the form of permanent injunctions, monetary penalties and interest, and an “officer-and-director bar and a bar from offering digital securities” against the company’s founders.

    Securities SEC Initial Coin Offerings Enforcement Blockchain Cryptocurrency Fintech Virtual Currency Distributed Ledger

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  • American Multinational Retail Corporation Sets Aside $283 Million for Potential Resolution of FCPA Allegations

    Financial Crimes

    On November 16, an American multinational retail corporation disclosed in an SEC filing that it has set aside $283 million for a potential resolution with DOJ and SEC of alleged FCPA violations. The investigation into possible FCPA violations in Mexico was first disclosed in the company’s December 2011 SEC filing and, in subsequent filings, the company stated that the allegations had been expanded to include possible violations in Brazil, China, and India, among others.

    In its November 16 filing, the company reiterated that it has been cooperating with the DOJ and SEC in their investigations, and the discussions with these government agencies has progressed such that the company can reasonably estimate a probable loss of $283 million, although it noted that the company cannot assure that its efforts to resolve these matters will ultimately succeed as anticipated.

    Click here for FCPA Scorecard’s prior coverage of this matter.

    Financial Crimes SEC DOJ FCPA

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  • SEC Releases FY 2017 Annual Report on Enforcement Priorities and Results

    Federal Issues

    On November 15, the SEC Division of Enforcement released a report highlighting the division’s priorities for the coming year and summarizing the enforcement actions from FY 2017. Division Co-Directors Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin identify and discuss the five core principles that guide their decision making: (i) “Focus on the Main Street Investor”; (ii) “Focus on Individual Accountability”; (iii) “Keep Pace With Technological Change”; (iv) “Impose Sanctions That Most Effectively Further Enforcement Goals”; and (v) “Constantly Assess the Allocation of [the Division’s] Resources.”

    The report highlights the two new initiatives announced in 2017 as key priorities: the Cyber Unit and Retail Strategy Task Force (previously covered by InfoBytes). The report also gives an overview of the 754 FY 2017 enforcement actions, including a summary of the various remedies the Division sought.

    Federal Issues SEC Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Enforcement Financial Crimes

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  • SEC Chairman Discusses Corporate Governance, States Enhanced Transparency Can Help Prevent Fraud, and Reveals First-Ever National Database of Barred Brokers and Advisors

    Securities

    On November 8, the Chairman of the SEC, Jay Clayton, spoke before the Practising Law Institute’s annual institute on securities regulation to discuss the role of corporate governance and how enhanced transparency can help prevent fraud. Clayton stated that the SEC would be streamlining and shortening its near-term agenda in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, and that the SEC also would apply this approach to its longer-term strategic plans as well.

    Clayton also commented on approaches to mitigate “misconduct” before an enforcement action would be required. Specifically, Clayton noted, “[l]ooking back at enforcement actions, a common theme emerges – where opacity exists, bad behavior tends to follow.” Clayton highlighted the following areas in which opacity may exist: (i) disclosures involving “hidden or inappropriate fees”; (ii) poor recordkeeping and lack of reliable information related to penny stocks; (iii) transaction processing related to unregistered securities; (iv) online platforms that manage initial coin offerings (ICOs); and (v) investor education.

    Concerning ICOs, Clayton commented that because “[t]here is a distinct lack of information about many online platforms that list and trade virtual coins or tokens offered and sold in . . . ICOs . . ., [t]rading of tokens on these platforms is susceptible to price manipulation and other fraudulent trading practices.” The SEC proposed enhanced clarity when listing tokens on these types of platforms, assigning value to tokens, and examining measures designed to protect investors and market integrity.

    Clayton further revealed that the SEC was creating a website that would publish, among other things, a searchable database of those individuals who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations.  Clayton noted that this database would be “intended to make the prior actions of repeat offenders and fraudsters more visible to investors” and could be “particularly valuable when bad actors have shifted from the registered space for investment advisers and broker-dealers to the unregistered space.”

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings SEC Fraud

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  • Charles Cain Named New SEC FCPA Chief

    Financial Crimes

    After serving as Acting Chief of the SEC’s Enforcement Division’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Unit for more than six months, SEC veteran Charles Cain will now officially take on the position of head of the FCPA Unit. According to an SEC press release, Cain intends “to build[] upon the important work the unit has done to combat corruption and level the playing field globally.” The SEC named Cain to the Acting Chief role in April 2017 after his predecessor, Kara Brockmeyer, left the agency

    After graduating with honors from The George Washington University Law School, Cain spent two years in the private sector before joining the SEC in 1999. In addition to serving as Deputy Chief of the FCPA Unit since 2011, Cain co-authored A Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, an effort for which he received the Irving M. Pollack Award.

    Financial Crimes SEC FCPA

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  • German Software Company Self-Discloses Approximately $6.8 Million in Payments to Gupta Family-Related South African Entities

    Financial Crimes

    On October 26, a German multinational software corporation, announced that it has voluntarily disclosed commission payments of approximately $6.8 million to a wealthy South African family's related entities to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The voluntary disclosure in July has led to an ongoing DOJ and SEC investigation into the company's conduct. 

    The company acknowledged that between December 2014 and June 2017, contracts with two South African state-owned companies were closed with the assistance of family-related entities. The company’s internal investigation has also led to the initiation of disciplinary proceedings against three employees in South Africa. The family, which is connected to South African President Jacob Zuma, has previously denied wrongdoing associated with receiving such kickbacks. While acknowledging cooperation with the DOJ and the SEC, the company stated that it has had no interaction with South African authorities and has not decided whether the company will approach South African authorities in the future. The U.S. investigation is ongoing and the company has acknowledged that it has begun the process of sharing documents with authorities. 

    Financial Crimes SEC DOJ Anti-Corruption

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  • CFTC Issues Primer on Virtual Currencies, Claims Certain Virtual Tokens Fall Under Its Oversight

    Securities

    On October 17, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced the release of “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies” (Primer) issued by its LabCFTC division. As previously discussed in Infobytes, the LabCFTC initiative rolled out in May of this year to engage innovators in the financial technology industry to promote responsible fintech innovation within regulated CFTC markets. In this Primer—a first in a series—the CFTC discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies and outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies. The Primer also highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies, such as (i) the susceptibility of “digital wallets” to cybersecurity hacks; (ii) inadequate safeguards and other customer protection related systems on virtual currency exchanges; and (iii) the susceptibility of virtual currencies to Ponzi schemes and other types of frauds.

    The CFTC noted that there’s no inconsistency between the SEC’s analysis that Initial Coin Offerings or Token Sales may be subject to federal securities law (see previous InfoBytes coverage here) and CFTC’s determination that virtual currencies are commodities and virtual tokens “may be commodities or derivatives contracts, depending on the particular facts and circumstances.” Last month, as discussed in InfoBytes, the CFTC also filed its first-ever antifraud enforcement action for activities involving Bitcoin investment solicitations.

    Securities Fintech Agency Rule-Making & Guidance CFTC Digital Commerce Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency Bitcoin SEC

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  • SEC Approves FINRA’s Streamlined Securities Competency Exams for Industry Professionals and Consolidated Registration Rules

    Securities

    On October 5, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced SEC approval of its proposal to consolidate certain registration rules and streamline competency exams for professionals entering or re-entering the securities industry. Under Regulatory Notice 17-30, the NASD and NYSE incorporated registration rules are now consolidated as “FINRA rules” to provide member firms “consistency and uniformity.” The rules will allow member firms to permissively register all associated persons of a firm and establish waiver programs for registered employees who “move to a financial services industry affiliate of a member firm.” Further, as previously discussed in an InfoBytes post concerning the proposed rule, FINRA’s new streamlined examination structure is designed to eliminate duplicative testing and remove outdated categories. The changes include a general knowledge examination that all new representative-level applicants will be required to pass, in addition to a revised qualification examination appropriate to their job functions. Changes to FINRA’s continuing education requirements have also been made. The rule takes effect October 1, 2018.

    Securities FINRA SEC

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