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 and warnings regarding the ICO and cryptocurrency markets, I believe that these are the first situations in which the SEC has actually brought enforcement actions and levied substantial monetary penalties in connection with such promotional activities.

Mayweather and Khaled each made endorsements of ICOs, primarily through their social media platforms. This allowed them to immediately convey their endorsements to their numerous social media followers. Each individual was paid a fee for making these ICO endorsements, but neither individual disclosed that he was being compensated for these promotional activities. The SEC charged each individual with violating Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933, which prohibits anyone from promoting a security without fully disclosing that they are being compensated for such endorsement and the amount of the payment.

The SEC’s prime concern here appeared to be that investors who are unaware of these compensation arrangements might think that Mayweather’s and Khaled’s endorsements were independent and were not influenced by this compensation. In its November 29, 2018 press release regarding this matter, the SEC stressed the “importance of full disclosure to investors” and said that “investors should be skeptical of investment advice posted to social media platforms and should not make decisions based on celebrity endorsements”. For further discussion of the SEC’s positions in the ICO and cryptocurrency areas, you can access SEC Release No. 81207 (July 25, 2017) here.

The SEC is right in its actions in these situations.  It’s clear that athletes like Mayweather and music industry leaders like Khaled exert significant influence over their fans, and this is magnified on social media. For example, Khaled is a well-known and powerful social media influencer who is sometimes called the “King of Snapchat”. When such powerful social media influence enters the securities offering and disclosure area, it’s important for the SEC to take the steps necessary to ensure that the correct investor safeguards are in place even though the investor context is not the traditional one.

Neither Mayweather nor Khaled admitted or denied the SEC’s charges in this matter, and I’m not imputing bad motives to either man. Each agreed, however, to pay fairly substantial amounts for disgorgement, penalties and interest. Mayweather paid over $600,000, while Khaled paid over $150,000, and each agreed to not promote any securities (digital or otherwise) for three years (Mayweather) and two years (Khaled).

This situation demonstrates the SEC’s commitment to carefully regulate the ICO and cryptocurrency areas and its willingness to take firm and swift action when it discovers problem situations. ICO issuers and promoters should carefully plan their actions and strategies to ensure that they comply with SEC laws and regulations.

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

Initial coin offerings have taken off in 2017.

The SEC took two strong steps this week toward increased regulation of the cryptocurrency markets and specifically regulation of Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”). These steps included the halting of an ongoing ICO and a strong statement by the SEC’s chairman regarding ICOs and their status under the Federal securities laws. These steps were the SEC’s strongest actions to date regarding ICOs, but what is the probable long-term result here? This is getting very interesting as you pit the regulators and their application of traditional securities law concepts against an increasing strong demand in the investment community to invest in these cryptocurrency vehicles.

An ICO involves the offering of a token, “coin” or other digital product. In exchange for their investment, investors receive these tokens or coins. The company then uses the proceeds of the ICO for various corporate purposes similar to a regular offering of securities. ICOs have generally not been registered with the SEC.

On December 11, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO that was being conducted by Munchee Inc., a company that developed a restaurant review app. This action was based on the fact that the company had not registered this offering with the SEC. This ICO involved the issuance of MUN Tokens by Munchee, which the company said might increase in value. Munchee planned to raise about $15 million in this ICO. The SEC said that an investor could reasonably expect to earn a return on these Tokens, and accordingly the Tokens issued in the ICO were “securities” and should have been registered under the Federal securities laws. Munchee accepted the SEC’s findings without admitting or denying anything. The company agreed to halt the offering and to return all proceeds that it had received from investors in the offering.

The investigation of this matter was conducted in part by the SEC’s new Cyber Unit (a division of its Enforcement Section). The SEC had also issued other materials regarding concerns with cryptocurrencies and ICOs, including an Investor Bulletin issued on July 25, 2017 and a Report of Investigation issued on the same date. Continue Reading Cryptocurrency crackdown

This is a first for The Securities Edge – a book review.  The book in question is The Chickenshit Club – Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives by Jesse Eisinger.  Mr. Eisinger is a writer for Pro Publica.  He’s a very smart man and a good (even great) reporter; among other things, he’s won the Pulitzer Prize.  I met him once and was impressed by his intellect and commitment.

However, the book bothers me greatly, and that’s why I’ve decided to post this review.  As indicated by his title, he is concerned with the failure to prosecute executives, both generally and in connection with the financial collapse.  That concern is legitimate; many people – including people in business – share it, and some hold the failure at least partially responsible for our political situation today.  The problem with the book is that in Mr. Eisinger’s view there are heroes and villains and nothing in between; those who prosecute are good, and those who don’t (or who do so halfheartedly) are bad – and the businessmen themselves are the worst of all.

For example, among the people he idolizes is Stanley Sporkin, a retired USDC judge who previously served as the SEC’s Director of Enforcement. Mr. Sporkin’s integrity may be beyond question, but in Mr. Eisinger’s view, his judgment is (and was) as well.  Those of us who practiced during Mr. Sporkin’s tenure at Enforcement may have a different view.  Among other things, Mr. Sporkin was responsible for pursuing insider trading cases against Vincent Chiarella and Ray Dirks.   Mr. Eisinger lauds Mr. Sporkin for going after Mr. Chiarella – a typesetter for a financial printer who saw some juicy (nonpublic) information and traded on it.  Did he trade on the basis of inside information?  Yes, but at the end of the day he was a schnook who should have gotten a slap on the wrist rather than being subjected to a (literal) full court press by the federal government.  The courts apparently felt the same way, and, as courts often do, they found a way to let him off the hook by developing a strained approach to insider trading law that continues to haunt us today.  (Mr. Eisinger doesn’t mention the equally ill-advised insider trading prosecution of Ray Dirks, which also contributed to the current garbled state of affairs in insider trading law.)

Continue Reading Heroes and villains: A review of “The Chickenshit Club” by Jesse Eisinger

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

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?