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Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was odd to enforce what was essentially an insider trading matter as an internal accounting controls matter.  Commissioners Peirce and Roisman agreed in a November 13, 2020  “statement” that can be found here.

Let’s assume that you are an executive of a company; that you have material non-public information about the company that will, when announced, cause the company’s stock to increase in value; that the company has a policy that prohibits trading when in possession of MNPI; and that you make an open market purchase of the company’s stock before the information is made publicly available.  What are the odds that you will be charged with fraud or insider trading?

Let’s assume a similar but slightly different set of facts:  The company has material, non-public information that will, when announced, cause the company’s stock to increase in value; the company has a policy that prohibits trading when in possession of MNPI; before this information is made publicly available, the company enters into a so-called Rule 10b5-1 plan to facilitate a stock buyback program; and the company then proceeds to buy shares of its stock under the Rule 10b5-1 plan.  What are the odds that the company will be charged with fraud or insider trading?

If you answered both questions the same way, you may be wrong.  In a recent enforcement action involving the second fact pattern above, the SEC opted not to charge the company or its executives with fraud or insider trading.  Rather, the problem, according to the SEC, was that the company had “insufficient” internal accounting controls.  Without going into too many details, the SEC’s theory goes something like this:
Continue Reading Alternate routes (updated)

I’ve often said that lawyers representing corporations should never underestimate the creativity of the plaintiffs’ bar.  However, it seems that the white collar criminal defense bar may not be slouches in the creativity department either.

I’m referring to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that the legal team representing Elizabeth Holmes, the “disgraced Theranos founder,” is considering using her mental health (presumably, the lack thereof) as a defense in her upcoming federal trial for engaging in a variety of frauds.

I’m prepared to admit that I am totally if morbidly fascinated by the Theranos case: I’ve read the phenomenal book, Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou – twice, in fact – and will surely be among the first to see the movie (which reportedly will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes in what strikes me as the best casting choice ever); I’ve attended programs featuring Tyler Shultz, the whistleblower who blew the top off the fraud (and whose grandfather, former Secretary of State George Shultz, was on the Theranos board at the time in a family saga worthy of Aeschylus); I’ve listened to the podcast; I’ve watched the HBO documentary; and much more.  Still, it seems just surreal.
Continue Reading Legal surrealism

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As noted in a prior post, every now and then the SEC Enforcement Division likes to remind companies of the requirement to disclose personal benefits, or perquisites.  I’d even hazard a guess – completely unsubstantiated by research – that enforcement actions regarding perquisite non-disclosure make up a significant percentage of enforcement actions concerning proxy statements.

And yet, companies seem to keep forgetting about perks disclosure.  In some cases, the companies’ disclosure controls may not capture perquisites, but my hunch – again, unsupported by research, but this time supported by experience – is that companies and, in particular, their executives, manage to persuade themselves that the benefits in question have a legitimate business purpose and thus are not personal benefits at all.  Over the course of my career, I’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of reasons why a seemingly personal benefit should be treated as a business expense.  Here are just a few:
Continue Reading When it comes to perquisites, caveat discloser

The SEC is re-examining one of the most important disclosures companies provide – Management’s Discussion and Analysis, or MD&A.  I’ve read lots of MD&As in my time, and to be completely candid, many of them – or at least too many of them – are poor.

There are lots of ways in which MD&As are poor, but my principal complaints are as follows:

  1. They don’t provide the “A” in MD&A – the analysis. Sales are up?  Great!  Why were they up?  Well, that’s anyone’s guess.  “Increased market acceptance of our product.”  Also great, but does “greater acceptance” mean that more units sold?  That customers were willing to pay more for each unit, so the company raised the price?  That the company expanded the markets in which the product is sold?  Beats me.
  2. Instead of discussing the “why’s,” companies do a cut and paste of key line items in their financial statements, sometimes with a “Percentage Change” column, indicating how much each line in, say, the P&L changed from period to period. In other words, they’re doing what any reader can do, which is precisely what prior SEC glosses on MD&A disclosure have said not to do.  And then they copy and paste sections of the notes to financial statements about how revenue is determined.  Again, no “why.”

I could rattle off a list of other weaknesses of many MD&As, but let’s move on.


Continue Reading Analyze This!

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In case you think that SEC Regulation FD is old news, think again.  A recent enforcement action makes it clear that Reg FD is alive and well.  (And, I might add, living in Boca Raton, Florida.)

Specifically, in an August 20 announcement, the  SEC announced that it had charged a Boca Raton-based pharmaceutical company with FD violations “based on its sharing of material, nonpublic information with sell-side research analysts without disclosing the same information to the public.”  The more detailed allegations include the following:

  • In June 2017, the company privately advised analysts of a “very positive and productive” meeting with the FDA about approval of a new drug. The next day – before any public announcement – the company’s stock closed up nearly 20% on heavy volume.
  • One month later, the company issued an early morning press release that it had submitted additional information to the FDA but “did not yet have a clear path” regarding its new drug application. The stock declined 16% in pre-market trading following the issuance of the release.  However, after issuing the press release but before the opening of the market, the company provided analysts with previously undisclosed information about the June FDA meeting.   The analysts published research notes with these details, and the stock rebounded, to close “only” 6.6% down for the day.


Continue Reading FD Lives!

As securities lawyers know, disclosure is generally regarded as the best disinfectant.  However, in a recent enforcement action, the SEC determined that disclosure is not always enough.  Specifically, when it comes to internal controls over financial reporting, or ICFR, companies need to actually fix the problems they disclose.

In the action, the SEC cited

Lest you think that the SEC’s focus on the use of non-GAAP financial metrics is so, well, 2018, think again.  On December 26, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against a company based entirely on the company’s use of non-GAAP metrics without giving “equal or greater prominence [to] the most directly comparable financial measure or measures calculated and presented in accordance with GAAP…”, as required by Item 10(e)(1)(i)(A) of Regulation S-K.

According to the SEC order, the company in question – ADT, the security company based in Boca Raton, Florida – issued earnings releases for fiscal 2017 and the first quarter of fiscal 2018 that prominently included such non-GAAP metrics as adjusted EBITDA, adjusted net income, and free cash flow before special items, without giving equal or greater prominence to the comparable GAAP data.  For example, the order states:
Continue Reading Ho, Ho, Uh-Oh: The SEC continues to focus on non-GAAP disclosures

The SEC recently settled charges against two prominent celebrities in connection with the promotion of initial coin offerings. Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and music producer and social media star DJ Khaled were charged in separate incidents with failing to disclose that they had received payments for promoting ICOs. While the SEC has provided prior guidance

Photo by Jan Kaláb

Step away from the phone!  That’s the message Elon Musk, the now former Chairman of Tesla and habitual Twitter user, should have heeded in August before he sent one of his latest ill-advised tweets.  Unfortunately, Musk let his critics (this time the short sellers of Tesla’s stock) get the better of him, and now Tesla and Musk are paying a high price for what amounts to an off the cuff remark.

The background, as you may recall, is that back in August, Musk tweeted that he was contemplating taking Tesla private at $420 per share and that he had “funding secured.”  Of course, as it was later discovered the $420 per share price was only loosely based on a financial model or expected financial performance of Tesla.  Rather, the SEC claims the price had more to do with impressing his girlfriend.  And the “funding secured” part had very little basis in reality either.

As a general matter, I would recommend against launching a going private transaction via tweet.  The SEC seems to agree.  On September 29, 2018, Musk and Tesla quickly settled an SEC lawsuit by Musk agreeing to step down as Chairman of Tesla for at least three years, each of Musk and Tesla paying a $20 million fine (to be distributed to harmed stockholders), Tesla agreeing to add two new independent directors to its Board, and Tesla agreeing to put in place new controls to review all social media communications of Tesla’s senior management, including company pre-approval of all Musk social media postings that may contain material nonpublic information.  The penalty is fairly harsh, but it is actually more mild than was originally intended – the SEC’ s lawsuit sought a bar from Musk serving as a director or an officer of a public company.

Given that Musk and Tesla settled the lawsuit two days after it was filed, Musk and Tesla must have believed that the SEC would not go away quietly or quickly.  The SEC clearly used a lawsuit against an outspoken
Continue Reading Musk tweet helps Tesla go up in smoke

Since the beginning of this month (July 2018), the SEC has brought two enforcement cases involving perquisites disclosure – one involving Dow Chemical, and one involving Energy XXI.  As my estimable friend Broc Romanek noted in a recent posting, over the past dozen years, the SEC has brought an average of one such case per year.  It’s not clear why the SEC is doubling down on these actions, but regardless of the reasons, it makes sense to pay attention.

The SEC’s complaint in the Dow Chemical case is an important read, as it summarizes the requirements for perquisites disclosure.  Among other things, it’s worth noting the following:

  • While SEC rules require disclosure of “perquisites and other personal benefits”, they do not define or provide any clarification as to what constitutes a “perquisite or other personal benefit.” Instead, the SEC addressed the subject in the adopting release for the current executive compensation disclosure rules, and it has also been covered in numerous speeches and other statements over the years by members of the SEC staff.
  • For those of you who prefer a principles-based approach to rulemaking, you win. Specifically, the adopting release stated as follows:

“Among the factors to be considered in determining whether an item is a perquisite or other personal benefit are the following:

  1. An item is not a perquisite or personal benefit if it is integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties.
  2. Otherwise, an item is a perquisite or personal benefit if it confers a direct or indirect benefit that has a personal aspect, without regard to whether it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company, unless it is generally available on a non-discriminatory basis to all employees.”

The SEC has also noted on several occasions that if an item is not integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties, it’s still a “perk”, even if it may be provided for some business reason or for the convenience of the company.


Continue Reading Doubling down (literally) on perquisites disclosure