Tag Archives: censure

Supreme Court Holds 5-Year Statute of Limitations Applies to SEC Disgorgement

On June 5, 2017, by unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that disgorgement – a remedy that generated $3 billion in 2015 – is a “penalty” thereby subjecting it to the 5-year statute of limitations that applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.” Kokesh v. SEC, No. 16-529, slip op. at 1 (June 5, 2017) (quoting 28 U.S.C. §2462). The Court’s decision relieved Kokesh of a $30 million disgorgement order entered in the lower court.

The SEC had argued that disgorgement is a different animal – it simply places the defendant in the same position as he or she would have been but for the offense. The Court strongly disagreed noting the deterrent qualities of disgorgement, which is a hallmark of a penalty, “[s]anctions imposed for the purpose of deterring infractions of public laws are inherently punitive.” Id. at 8. The Court observed that the victims (if there are any) of a securities law violation need not participate in the enforcement action and may not even support it. In addition, money that is disgorged to the Treasury often stays there; i.e., there is no absolute requirement that the money that is recovered be distributed to the purportedly aggrieved investors.

Going forward, the SEC is faced with having to speed up its investigations and charging decisions.  That can be a challenge, especially in complex cases where the Enforcement Division would prefer to thoroughly build out a case in advance.

Here is the decision:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/16-529_i426.pdf

 

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Senate Bill Would Increase SEC Penalties To $1 Million And Up

Under a Senate bill, the SEC would be able to administratively impose a maximum $1 million per violation penalty on individuals and a maximum $10 million per violation penalty on financial firms for the most serious (e.g., fraud, deceit) violations.  The current levels are substantially lower — at $181,071 for individuals and $905,353 for firms — though the SEC is empowered to go to federal court to get the equivalent of the ill-gotten gains in a given case.

Under the proposed measure, the SEC would not have to go to federal court to get large remedies, though the total remedy per violation would be capped – the maximum penalty for an individual could not exceed, for each violation, the greater of (i) $1 million, (ii) three times the gross pecuniary gain, or (iii) the losses incurred by victims as a result of the violation.  The maximum amount that could be obtained from entities could not exceed, for each violation, the greater of (i) $10 million, (ii) three times the gross pecuniary gain, or (iii) the losses incurred by victims as a result of the violation.

In addition, individuals and firms that were found civilly or criminally liable for securities law violations in the 5 years leading up to a new violation could face up to three times the new caps, e.g., penalties of $3 million/$30 million.

It is important to note that SEC administrative or “in-house” courts have faced substantial constitutional challenges recently and are often considered subject to agency bias.  At a minimum, it is clear that the SEC courts lack some of the procedural safeguards provided in federal court.  If the Senate bill becomes law, the SEC will have significantly increased leverage in negotiations with respondents not only because of the amounts involved but because the Enforcement staff would not need to go to federal court to get such amounts.

 

 

SEC Sanctions $1B AUM Investment Adviser for Weak Compliance Culture

On June 23, 2015, the SEC censured an investment advisor and its two principals for rickety compliance policies and procedures.[1] Among other things, the SEC found that, due to systemic compliance failures, the advisor overcharged its high net worth clients for their investments in a mutual fund called the Appleseed Fund. The firm, Pekin Singer, offered shares in the Appleseed Fund under a sliding fee structure where clients who met a higher minimum investment paid a lower fee. Pekin Singer failed to timely advise its clients, most of whom met the higher minimum investment threshold, that they could convert to the lower costs shares, thereby improperly increasing the firm’s bottom line at the expense of customers.

Pekin Singer’s internal compliance issues ran deep. In 2009 and 2010, it failed to conduct required annual compliance program reviews and it chronically underfunded and underemphasized its compliance function. For example, the firm’s former CCO had limited compliance experience and was required to simultaneously serve as the CFO of the firm. Because of the multiple hats the he wore, the CCO was only able to devote 10% to 20% of his time to compliance issues.

Further, the CCO, aware of his limitations in the compliance area, sought to hire outside compliance help. After two years of lobbying, the firm hired an outside compliance consultant. The consultant’s review coincided with an OCIE examination by the SEC’s Chicago office. The examination and consultant’s review uncovered a number of compliance failures, including improper trading by an employee, which could have been prevented if the firm had enforced its code of ethics.

To its credit, Pekin Singer fully cooperated with the SEC and returned the excessive fees to its clients. It also hired a new CCO whose only job is compliance and hired an outside attorney to advise on securities law issues relating to mutual funds. Finally, the firm has continued and expanded its relationship with an outside compliance consultant who is charged with monitoring and advising on the firm’s annual compliance program reviews.

Bottom line: Advisory firms and their principals should not skimp on or de-prioritize compliance issues. While having robust compliance policies and controls in place can seem costly up front, the costs to the firm, both in terms of reputation and money, can be much more if OCIE finds deficiencies.

[1] http://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/ia-4126.pdf