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On March 17, GOP members of the House Financial Services Committee sent a letter to Acting Labor Secretary Ed Hugler expressing their support for the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) proposal to delay the implementation of its Fiduciary Rule from April 10 until June 9. The letter asserts, among other things, that a delay is “necessary to review the rule’s scope and assess potential harm to investors, disruptions within the retirement services industry, and increases in litigation, as required by the Presidential Memorandum signed by President Trump on February 3, 2017.” The GOP Members also note that they “have long been concerned with the DOL Fiduciary Rule's impact on retail investors and the U.S. capital markets,” and, have therefore “advocated that the expert regulator—the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—should craft an applicable rule.”
Later that day, House Democrats sent their own letter to the Acting Labor Secretary expressing opposition to the DOL’s proposed 60-day delay of its Fiduciary Rule. Specifically, the Democratic members contend that “the rule is reasonable and workable for advisers,” because, among other reasons, “the DOL provided appropriate relief that mitigates industry concerns and compliance costs.”
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.
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 10, the New York Attorney General’s office announced it had reached a settlement in a securities fraud suit filed in 2005 by then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The lawsuit was filed after the company admitted to engaging in improper reinsurance transactions that materially misrepresented loss reserves and misstated underwriting results. The original settlement in 2006 resulted in the company paying $1.6 billion to settle the matter; however, the two individuals involved refused responsibility for the transactions. Now, over 12 years later, and after the two defendants’ arguments were “substantially rejected by the New York Supreme Court, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department and the New York Court of Appeals,” the defendants have acknowledged their role in the transactions and agreed to collectively relinquish over $9.9 million they had received as performance bonuses from 2001 through 2004.
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.
On February 2, a Japanese multinational electronics corporation disclosed that its U.S. subsidiary was being investigated by the DOJ and SEC for possible violations of the FCPA and other related laws. According to its press release, the company is cooperating in the investigation and recently began settlement discussions with both agencies. The countries at issue in the investigation have not been disclosed.
Although the company had not spoken publicly about the probe until this week, the Wall Street Journal first reported the investigation in 2013. The subsidiary company makes in-flight entertainment and communication systems for airlines.
On January 26, the SEC charged two more former executives at an American hedge fund company with being the “driving forces” behind a massive bribery scheme across Africa that violated the FCPA. The civil complaint, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges that the former head of the company’s European office in London, and an investment executive on Africa-related deals, caused “[the company] to pay tens of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials on the continent of Africa.” Specific allegations include that they induced Libyan authorities to invest in the company’s managed funds, and directed illicit efforts to secure mining deals by bribing government officials in Libya, Chad, Niger, Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In announcing the complaint, Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Unit, said the defendants “were the masterminds of the company’s bribery scheme that improperly used investor funds to pay bribes through agents and partners to officials at the highest levels of foreign governments.” The complaint seeks disgorgement and civil monetary penalties among other remedies.
The complaint follows the company’s payment last September of $412 million to the DOJ and SEC to settle criminal and civil charges in one of the largest ever FCPA enforcement actions. Previous FCPA Scorecard coverage of the company’s settlement with the DOJ and SEC can be found here.