waldryano
waldryano

I don’t know when Congress decided that every piece of legislation had to have a nifty acronym, but the House Financial Services Committee recently passed (on a partisan basis) what old-fashioned TV ads might have called the new, improved version of the “Financial CHOICE Act”.  The word “choice” is in solid caps because it stands for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs”.

Whether and for whom it creates hope, opportunity or something else entirely may depend upon your perspective, but whatever else can be said of the Act, it is long (though at 589 pages, it is slightly more than half as long as Dodd-Frank), and it addresses a very broad swath of issues.  Here’s what it has to say about some key issues in disclosure, governance and capital formation, along with some commentary. Continue Reading The Financial CHOICE Act – everything you’ve ever wanted, and more?

14779792521_b054cf2506_zIn the few days since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Salman v. United States, many commentators have said, in effect, that criminal prosecutions for insider trading are alive and well.  Alive, yes; well, maybe not.

At the risk of quoting myself, almost exactly two years ago I posted an item on this blog entitled “There ought to be a law”.  My belief at the time was that insider trading law is so byzantine that it’s impossible to know where legally permissible behavior becomes legally impermissible behavior.  For better or worse (worse, IMHO), nothing has changed all that much.  In the Salman decision, SCOTUS says that a prosecutor need not prove that a tipper received something of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” to convict the tipper of illegal insider trading.  So far, so good.  However, as many commentators have pointed out, Salman leaves any number of other issues wide open.

Continue Reading Insider trading: there still ought to be a law

Whistleblowers receive protection
Photo by Kai Schreiber

We are pleased to provide a posting from our colleague, Holly L. Griffin, an attorney in Gunster’s Labor and Employment practice group.

Within the course of one week, the SEC took administrative action against two companies for language contained within severance agreements which restricted employee rights to obtain a monetary award for reports of potential law violations to the SEC. The SEC took aim at two types of provisions which commonly appear in severance agreements: the confidentiality clause and the waiver of rights.

Background

In one of the cases, the company required all employees accepting severance pay to sign an agreement that contained a clause prohibiting disclosure of company confidential information and trade secrets, except when the employee is compelled by law to disclose the information.  In the event the employee was required to disclose company confidential information, the agreement required the employee to provide notice to the company.  The SEC determined that the confidentiality agreement put former employees between a rock and a hard place if they wanted to report potential law violations; they could either identify themselves as a whistleblower to the company by providing notice, or risk breaching the agreement and forfeiting severance by disclosing confidential information.

In both matters, the companies required all employees accepting severance to sign an agreement that contained a waiver of rights. Although the severance agreements did not prohibit the employees from reporting or participating in an investigation into a potential law violation, they explicitly prohibited the employees from receiving monetary compensation for such reports.  The SEC found both companies in violation of an SEC Rule which prohibits public companies from taking action which impede a whistleblower from communicating with the SEC regarding possible law violations.  Congress enacted the “Dodd-Frank Act with the stated purpose of encouraging whistleblowers to report potential law violations to the SEC, by offering financial incentives or awards for reports.  The SEC determined that requiring employees to waive their right to financial recovery undermines the public policy purpose behind the Dodd-Frank Act and violates SEC rules.

Both companies were required to notify former employees of the ruling and to pay monetary civil penalties, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars each. One company was also required to amend its severance agreements to include a section titled “Protected Rights,” which notified employees of the right to report any suspected law violation to a governmental agency and to receive an award for providing such information.

What it means  Continue Reading SEC Attacks Standard Severance Agreements–Companies Would be Well Advised to Take Notice and Adjust Accordingly

bob-upticks-feature

Until recently, I’ve firmly believed that the SEC’s use of the bully pulpit can be effective in getting companies to act – or refrain from acting – in a certain way.  Speeches by Commissioners and members of the SEC Staff usually have an impact on corporate behavior.  However, the use of non-GAAP financial information – or, more correctly, the improper use of such information – seems to persist despite jawboning, rulemaking and other attempts to stifle the practice.

Concerns about the (mis)use of non-GAAP information are not new.  In fact, abuses in the late 1990s and early 2000s led the SEC to adopt Regulation G in 2003.  It’s hard to believe that Reg G has been around for 13+ years, but at the same time it seems as though people have been ignoring it ever since it was adopted.  Over the last few months, members of the SEC and its Staff have devoted a surprising amount of time to jawboning about the misuse of non-GAAP information; for example, the SEC’s Chief Accountant discussed these concerns in March 2016; the Deputy Chief Accountant spoke about the problem in early May 2016; and SEC Chair White raised the subject in a speech in December 2015.  And yet, the problem seems to persist.

Continue Reading Mind the GAAP

Record retentionThose of us who have been around long enough to remember paper SEC filings may recall the requirement to file one manually signed copy of Exchange Act filings and, if memory serves me correctly, three manually signed copies of Securities Act registration statements.  When EDGAR was implemented, we hoped to be spared the often last-minute scramble to find an authorized officer to sign a filing, but our hopes were not rewarded; not only were we required to obtain manually signed copies, but we were admonished to retain them for five years.

Lest you think that the SEC doesn’t care about these requirements, a recent enforcement action clarifies that it does.  In the action, the SEC cited MusclePharm Corporation for a variety of serious disclosure and books and records violations.  However, one paragraph of the SEC Order notes that “MSLP failed to maintain signed signature pages for most of its filings with the Commission from 2010 through 2013 as required under Rule 302 of Regulation S-T.  MSLP failed to receive or maintain any manually signed signature pages prior to December 2012.  After December 2012, while MSLP had made over 23 Commission filings, MSLP only received or maintained original signature pages for all signatories on eight filings.”

So be sure to get those signature pages signed and make sure they are retained in your files for the required five-year period.

Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq
Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq

The SEC continued its program of enforcement actions in connection with the Federal EB-5 Program by bringing charges against two firms which raised approximately $79 million for EB-5-related situations. This matter is a little different in that it is the first SEC action to be brought in connection with unregistered broker-dealer activities in the EB-5 context. This action is important and should be reviewed by all participants in the EB-5 arena because it demonstrates the SEC’s willingness to exercise its enforcement powers in connection with these immigration-related matters. It also shows the SEC’s willingness to partner with other regulatory agencies (in this case the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS)). The SEC’s action is summarized in its June 23 press release.

The Federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program is designed to provide a way for foreign nationals to achieve legal residency in the U.S. by investing in certain approved U.S.-based businesses or designated regional economic development centers. The requirement for investment in a regional economic development center is generally less than the amount required to invest in a U.S. business under this program.

According to the SEC’s Order, Ireeco LLC and a successor company, Ireeco Limited, acted as unregistered broker-dealers in raising funds from a number of foreign investors. According to the Order, these companies promised to help investors locate the best regional center in which to make their investments, but they allegedly only directed these investors to a small number of regional centers. These regional centers allegedly made payments to the Ireeco companies once the CIS granted certain approvals for conditional residence to the investors. The SEC alleged that the two Ireeco companies raised approximately $79 million in this manner

Continue Reading SEC charges unlicensed broker/dealers in EB-5 Program

Last December, I wrote an UpTick (“There ought to be a law”) about a decision in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that appears to be wreaking havoc with insider trading prosecutions past and present. The Second Circuit has now rejected a Justice Department request to reconsider the decision, and so we now face a period of uncertainty regarding whether and to what extent insider trading can be prosecuted.

Since the terms “inside information” and “insider trading” have never been defined, one suggestion is that Congress should enact legislation that would define one or both terms. That’s a good idea in principle, but the proposals that have been bandied about thus far provide little confidence that legislation would clarify the situation. For example, one bill would prohibit trading on information that “is not publicly available” but not “information that the person has independently developed from publicly available sources”. I’m not sure this helps; after all, Ray Dirks (the subject of an SEC vendetta that, in my opinion, led to the current confusion on what is and is not insider trading) independently developed the information in question, but the SEC prosecuted him anyway.

Another bill would (1) define inside information as nonpublic information obtained illegally from the issuer “with an expectation of confidentiality” or “in violation of a fiduciary duty” and (2) remove the requirement that a tipper receive a personal benefit for leaking the information. I like the second part, but I’m not sure that the first part works; for example, if I hear the information from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from the issuer, does that remove the taint?

There are also suggestions that Congress may consider a broader approach – i.e., making it illegal to trade when in possession of confidential information regardless of how it’s obtained. This reminds me of a hypothetical posed years ago by Stanley Sporkin, then the very feisty Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division: you’re flying in a plane and look out of your window to see XYZ Corporation’s biggest plant going up in flames. As interpreted by Mr. Sporkin, if you got off the plane and called your broker with a sell order, you would be engaging in illegal insider trading. Of course, these days you could place the order online well before the plane lands. Is that really how we’d like it to turn out?

It seems to me that before Congress even thinks about acting (not that Congress can act on very much if anything these days), we need to think about what goal we’re trying to achieve. If the objective is to create a level playing field for all investors, that’s one thing, and would probably require a much broader approach. If the goal is less ambitious — i.e., to curtail trading based on knowing leaks and thefts of inside information — that’s another. In any case, wishing for legislation on this topic reminds me of the old saw about being careful what you wish for.

Your thoughts?

A great deal has been written about the recent reversal of two insider trading convictions.  Specifically, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the convictions of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson, hedge fund traders found guilty at the District Court level.

The press reports have treated the reversal as a major slap in the face for Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  Bharara has made a big name for himself on the backs of numerous alleged – and quite a few convicted – insider traders, including Raj Rajaratnam.  While I’m sure Mr. Bharara isn’t happy about the reversal, he should take solace from the convoluted – no, byzantine – legal route by which insider trading convictions are achieved.

I suspect that most readers will not remember the SEC’s pursuit of Ray Dirks and a few others charged with insider trading many years ago.  Dirks, a securities analyst, uncovered a massive fraud perpetrated by a company named Equity Funding.  He alerted the SEC and some media about the matter, but neither did anything.  When he couldn’t gain any traction, Dirks advised his clients to sell the company’s stock.  For reasons that remain murky (including rumors of bad blood between the SEC and Dirks), the SEC decided to pursue insider trading charges against Dirks and a few other people who arguably should never have been prosecuted.

The courts have a way of dealing with cases that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place, and in this and some other prosecutions the outcome was the “misappropriation” theory of insider trading.  Simplistically stated, insider trading is not insider trading unless the tipper owed some duty to the company whose information was misappropriated (though not necessarily the company about which information was leaked) and derived a personal benefit from leaking the information.  Subsequent cases have generated many more wrinkles in what the theory really means.  As for Messrs. Newman and Chiasson, their convictions were reversed because even though their tipper derived a personal benefit from giving the tip, they didn’t know that he was deriving that benefit.

So if you think that the point of insider trading prosecutions is to maintain a level playing field, think again.  It’s not about what you know, or who you know; apparently, it’s about what you know about who you know.  There ought to be a law, but this isn’t it.

I’d like to know what you think.

A few weeks ago – “From the same wonderful folks who brought you conflict minerals (among other things)” – I complained about Senator Blumenthal’s attempt to tell the SEC what to regulate and how to regulate it.  I had an equal and opposite reaction to the recent news that Commissioner Gallagher and former Commissioner Grundfest had gone after the Harvard Shareholder Rights Project, in effect telling the Project (AKA Lucian Bebchuk) that its actions violate the federal securities laws.

I agree with some (though not all) of Commissioner Gallagher’s views.  I’m also troubled by the notion of an esteemed academic institution taking aggressive, one-size-fits-all positions on corporate governance matters.  However, in this case, I’m inclined to think that Commissioner Gallagher should have taken a higher road – encouraging discussion, maybe even holding an SEC Roundtable on the topic.  And if he really thinks that there’s a violation here, perhaps he should have whispered in the ear of the Enforcement Division that it might want to look into this.  Instead, he’s behaving somewhat like a bully – not that the Good Professor is likely to be quaking in his boots about it.

Also, it strikes me as downright inappropriate for a Commissioner to make a statement about a matter that the Commission could conceivably have to rule on if the matter ever does result in an enforcement action.  At a minimum, he’d have to recuse himself on the matter, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat.  And given recent criticisms of the SEC for (1) pursuing more matters as administrative proceedings than court cases and (2) unfairly touting its enforcement record, does Commissioner Gallagher think he’s enhanced the stature of the SEC by doing this?

Your thoughts?

SEC wants you to confessSEC Chair Mary Jo White has indicated that the SEC will require that, in certain cases, admissions be made as a condition of settling rather than permitting the defendant to “neither admit nor deny” the allegations in the complaint of its enforcement action.  The move marks a departure from the typical practice at the SEC and many other civil federal regulatory agencies of allowing defendants to settle cases without admitting or denying the charges.  The policy of allowing defendants to neither admit nor deny the allegations has been increasingly criticized for its inherent lack of transparency regarding both the alleged wrongdoing and the corresponding disgorgement and forfeiture penalties.

According to White, the new policy will apply only in select cases, such as those where there is egregious conduct and/or wide spread public interest. While the precise parameters of the new policy have not been specified, White did note that the new policy would be applied on a case by case basis and that for most cases currently settling, the old policy would still apply.

Debate about the old policy began about two years ago, when Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected a $285 million settlement that the SEC negotiated with Citigroup, in part because the deal included “neither admit nor deny” language.  The SEC has appealed, and the case is pending before a panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Since then, a handful of other judges have voiced their discomfort with allowing defendants to pay fines without admitting liability.

In previously defending the old policy, the SEC has argued that most defendants would refuse to settle if they had to admit wrongdoing.  Essentially, companies and executives would rather fight in court than admit liability and face additional liability in parallel civil lawsuits, as well as the added difficulty of losing director and officer indemnification coverage which often pays the legal fees for corporate officers (a benefit which can be lost if Continue Reading It was me! SEC to toss “neither admit nor deny” policy in certain cases