Tag Archives: consent order

Auditing the Auditor: SEC Charges Firm With Inadequate Surprise Exams

On April 29, 2016, the SEC brought and settled charges that an accounting firm, Santos, Postal & Co. (“Santos”) and one of its principals, Joseph Scolaro (“Scolaro”), performed inadequate surprise exams of one of their investment advisor clients, SFX Financial (“SFX”), the president of which stole over $670k from SPX clients. Santos and Scolaro neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the SEC Order but consented to its entry and to disgorgement and penalties totaling over $55,000. Santos and SColaro agreed to be suspended from practicing before the SEC, which includes preparing financial reports and audits of public companies. Santos and Scolaro are permitted to apply for reinstatement after one and five years, respectively.

Because SFX was deemed to have custody of client assets under SEC Rule 206(4)-2 (the “Custody Rule”), SFX was required to hire an independent accountant (Santos) to perform surprise audits. The Custody Rule seeks to protect clients from asset misappropriation by investment advisors (e.g., Ponzi schemes). Accordingly, among other things, Santos was supposed to contact SFX’s clients to verify that they were aware of the contributions and withdrawals into and out of their accounts as reflected in SPX’s records. According to the SEC Order, Santos failed to actually contact clients about such transactions.

The SEC previously announced charges against SFX’s president Brian Ourand, who was later found by an administrative judge to have misappropriated funds from client accounts in violation of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Ourand was ordered to pay disgorgement of $671,367 plus prejudgment interest and a $300,000 penalty, and was barred from the industry. SFX and its CCO separately agreed to settlements.

The SEC’s Order relating to Santos and Scolaro can be found here:

Click to access 34-77745.pdf

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