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On March 10, 2017, the SEC issued an Order disapproving of a proposed rule change by the BATS BZX Exchange (“the Proposal”), which proposed to list and trade “commodity-based trust shares” issued by the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. The Proposal, if approved, would have established a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (“ETF”) that market participants could invest in through the BATS BZX Exchange platform. Specifically, in rejecting the Proposal, the Commission emphasized the lack of regulation in the bitcoin market, noting both (i) that the BATS BZX Exchange platform “would currently be unable to enter into, the type of surveillance-sharing agreement that helps address concerns about the potential for fraudulent or manipulative acts and practices in the market for the Shares”; and (ii) that bitcoin regulation, at present, would leave a bitcoin ETF more susceptible to manipulation than an ETF comprised of other commodities, such as gold and silver. Ultimately, the Commission concluded that, “[a]bsent the ability to detect and deter manipulation of the Shares—through surveillance sharing with significant, regulated markets related to the underlying asset—the [Commission] does not believe that a national securities exchange can meet its” regulatory obligations.
Comments submitted in response to the original BATS BZX Exchange proposed rule change can be accessed here.
On March 8, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) filed a proposed rule with the SEC to streamline its competency exams for professionals entering or re-entering the securities industry. Currently, only individuals associated with FINRA-regulated firms are eligible to take the qualification exam. The proposed rule would allow individuals with no prior securities industry experience to take FINRA’s Securities Industry Essentials exam, an “important first step to entering the industry,” which would serve to “provide enhanced flexibility and efficiency in [the] qualifications programs, while maintaining important standards and investor protections.” While these individuals would also be required to pass a more specialized knowledge exam—and must be associated with, and sponsored by, a firm—the proposed change would potentially expand the pool of qualified candidates for positions. Further, under this proposal, individuals who transfer to a financial services affiliate of a FINRA-regulated firm may qualify for a waiver that allows their credentials to be reinstated without re-taking their qualification exams, should they return to the industry within a seven-year period and meet the requirements of the waiver program. Currently, a registered individual who transfers for two or more years must re-take an exam to be re-qualified. The proposed rule is under review with the SEC.
On March 9, the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee introduced and advanced five securities-related bills out of committee. The bills—listed below—now await scheduling for consideration by each chamber in full.
- S. 327 / H.R. 910 - Fair Access to Investment Research Act of 2017. This legislation will direct the SEC to provide a safe harbor for certain investment fund research reports.
- S. 444 / H.R. 1219 - Supporting America’s Innovators Act of 2017. This legislation will amend the Investment Company Act of 1940 by expanding “the limit on the number of individuals who can invest in certain venture capital funds before those funds must register with the SEC as ‘investment companies.’”
- S. 462 / H.R. 1257 - Securities and Exchange Commission Overpayment Credit Act. This legislation will require the SEC to refund or credit excess payments made to the Commission under a 10-year statute of limitations.
- S. 484 / H.R. 1366 - U.S. Territories Investor Protection Act of 2017. This legislation will amend the Investment Company Act of 1940 to terminate an exemption for companies located in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and any other possession of the United States.
- S. 488 / H.R. 1343 - Encouraging Employee Ownership Act. This legislation will increase the threshold for disclosures required by the SEC relating to compensatory benefit plans.
H.R. 1312 - The Small Business Capital Formation Enhancement Act. The House Financial Services Committee also approved a sixth bill, which seeks to amend the Small Business Investment Inventive Act of 1980 to require an annual review by the SEC of any findings set forth in the annual government-business forum on capital formation.
On February 24, a major financial services institution disclosed in its 10-K that government and regulatory agencies, including the SEC, are conducting investigations concerning potential violations of the FCPA related to hiring of candidates referred by or related to foreign government officials. The institution stated that it was cooperating with the investigations.
This is not the first FCPA-related investigation of a company’s hiring practices. As previously reported here in November 2016, a global financial company and a Hong Kong subsidiary agreed to pay approximately $264 million to the DOJ, SEC, and the Federal Reserve, ending a nearly three year, multi-agency investigation of the subsidiary’s referral program through which the children of influential Chinese officials were allegedly given prestigious and lucrative jobs as a quid pro quo to retain and obtain business in Asia. Similarly, as reported here, in August 2015, the SEC announced a settlement with a multinational financial services company over allegations that the company violated the FCPA by giving internships to family members of government officials working at a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund in hopes of retaining or gaining more business from that fund. The company paid $14.8 million to settle the charges.
Nor are the inquiries confined to financial services companies. For example, the SEC announced in March 2016, as covered here, that it settled charges with the San Diego-based mobile chip maker. The company agreed to pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to resolve charges that it violated the FCPA by hiring relatives of Chinese government officials and providing things of value to foreign officials and their family members, in an attempt to influence these officials to take actions that would assist the company in obtaining or retaining business in China.
As previously covered here, an Atlanta-based claims management firm, disclosed in November 2015 that it self-reported possible FCPA violations to the DOJ and SEC. These potential violations were identified during an internal audit. On February 27, 2017, the firm announced that it had received notice that the SEC “concluded its investigation and did not intend to recommend an enforcement action” related to this matter. The company did not reference the DOJ in its announcement.
The DOJ’s Fraud Section recently published an “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs.” The guidelines were released on February 8 without a formal announcement. Their stated purpose is to provide a list of “some important topics and sample questions that the Fraud Section has frequently found relevant in evaluating a corporate compliance program.” The guidelines are divided into 11 broad topics that include dozens of questions. The topics are:
- Analysis and Remediation of Underlying Conduct
- Senior and Middle Management
- Autonomy and Resources
- Policies and Procedures
- Risk Assessment
- Training and Communications
- Confidential Reporting and Investigation
- Incentives and Disciplinary Measures
- Continuous Improvement, Periodic Testing and Review
- Third Party Management
- Mergers & Acquisitions
According to the Fraud Section, many of the topics also appear in, among other sources, the United States Attorney’s Manual, United States Sentencing Guidelines, and FCPA Resource Guide published in November 2012 by the DOJ and SEC. While the content of the guidelines is not particularly groundbreaking, it is nonetheless noteworthy as the first formal guidance issued by the Fraud Section under the Trump administration and new Attorney General Jeff Sessions. By consolidating in one source and making transparent at least some of the factors that the Fraud Section considers when weighing the adequacy of a compliance program, the guidelines are a useful tool for companies and their compliance officers to understand how the Fraud Section and others at the DOJ may proceed in the coming months and years.
However, while the guidelines may give some indication of what the DOJ views as a best practices compliance program, they caution that the Fraud Section “does not use any rigid formula to assess the effectiveness of corporate compliance programs,” recognizes that “each company’s risk profile and solutions to reduce its risks warrant particularized evaluation,” and makes “an individualized determination in each case.”
On February 14, the SEC announced a settlement with a real estate investment manager based in Arizona over allegations that he defrauded investors. According to the complaint, the investment manager allegedly told investors he would make personal investments in real estate projects which he failed to do, instructed some investors to “falsely state that they were ‘accredited investors’” to avoid registration requirements for the offerings, and falsely represented that he would personally manage the projects when, instead, he entrusted management to a real estate broker who was later imprisoned for other crimes. The settlement requires the investment manager to disgorge $51,358 plus interest of $4,893.98 and pay a penalty of $450,000.
On February 8th, a former executive of a Hungarian telecommunications company settled a 2011 civil complaint filed by the SEC. The trial of the remaining co-defendants is scheduled for May 8. As part of the settlement, the former executive agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty and did not admit or deny the SEC’s allegations. The former executive also admitted that U.S. courts had jurisdiction over the case. The issue of jurisdiction had been contested; in 2013, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
The SEC’s complaint alleged that the former executive, along with two other co-defendants, authorized bribes to Macedonian government officials and others. In 2014, the SEC dropped allegations regarding payments to government officials in Montenegro, substantially narrowing the allegations in the case. The company and its parent settled allegations regarding payments to government officials in Macedonia and Montenegro with the SEC and DOJ in 2011. Prior Scorecard coverage of the company’s investigation can be found here.
This outcome of this lengthy case illustrates that individual defendants can still achieve relatively favorable outcomes when they choose to litigate FCPA cases, even after the corporate defendants have reached a resolution.
Houston-based oil company announced in a February 9, 2017 press release that the DOJ had formally closed its FCPA investigation into the company’s oil exploration operations in Angola and would not prosecute the company. The press release noted that the DOJ’s investigation “was the last remaining FCPA investigation by any U.S. regulatory agency into [the company’s Angolan operations.” The DOJ’s declination letter came more than two years after the SEC closed its own FCPA investigation and declined to bring an enforcement action.
As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the parallel investigations began in 2011, and were prompted by allegations concerning the connection between senior Angolan government officials and a local partner in the company-led deepwater oil venture. According to the company’s 10-K filing for FY 2012, the company had voluntarily contacted the DOJ when the SEC launched its initial inquiry and “offered to respond to any requests the DOJ may have.”
On February 6, 2017, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded the former general counsel of a life sciences company $10.9 million in a landmark FCPA whistleblower-retaliation case brought under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the Dodd-Frank Act, and California state law. After three hours of deliberation, the jury found that the company’s former general counsel of nearly 25 years, was fired for reporting suspected FCPA violations to the company’s audit committee in February 2013, a protected activity under SOX’s anti-retaliation provisions. Although the former general counsel did not report his concerns to the SEC, the court held in 2015 that internal whistleblowing under SOX was also protected by the Dodd-Frank Act’s anti-retaliation provisions, opening the door to Dodd-Frank’s double back-pay remedy. The company’s last-minute motion to block purported attorney-client privileged information from trial –“virtually all of the evidence and testimony Plaintiff might rely upon to prove his case” – was denied by the court in December 2016.
The jury ultimately awarded the former general counsel $2.96 million in back-pay – to be doubled under Dodd-Frank – plus $5 million in punitive damages. 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 general counsel’s report to the audit committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China.