The SEC’s investor advocate, Rick Fleming, has told Congress that one of the SEC’s focuses in the coming budgetary year (starting October 2016) will be the quality of advisor and broker dealer fee disclosures. The SEC is concerned that such disclosures (referencing things like advisory, trailer, administrative, “regulatory,” and custodial fees) are confusing to retail investors who don’t know industry parlance. Broker dealers are likely to be paying extra attention to the quality of their disclosures, not only because of this initiative but because the “best interests” standard under the DOL’s fiduciary rule will take effect in April 2017. For further discussion, please see the link below.
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:
Employers conducting internal investigations often have employees sign agreements requiring them to acknowledge the confidential nature of employee interviews. Less common are agreements that prohibit employees from discussing the interview with anyone outside the company on the pain of possible termination for such disclosure. On April 1, 2015, the SEC found such an agreement, required by a global engineering firm, to violate SEC Rule 21F-17. That Rule, adopted pursuant to Dodd-Frank, prohibits companies from taking, “any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the [SEC] about a possible securities violation, including … threatening to enforce a confidentiality agreement.”
The firm, KBR Inc., had required witnesses in internal investigations to sign confidentiality statements with language warning that they could face discipline or be fired if they discussed the matters with persons outside KBR. Although there was no evidence that KBR had actually sought to enforce the confidentiality statement, KBR nonetheless agreed to pay a $130,000 penalty and amend its confidentiality statement to make clear that employees may report potential securities violations to the SEC and other federal agencies without fear of retribution.
Bottom line: Companies conducting internal investigations that want to have witnesses acknowledge the confidential nature of interviews should amend their agreements and statements to reflect that employees may report potential violations to the Government without fear of any adverse employment action. In fact, companies seeking to avoid this problem may want to consult the amended language adopted by KBR in the SEC Order – http://www.sec.gov/litigation/admin/2015/34-74619.pdf.
On July 17, 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an ex-employee of a regulated entity, who internally reported alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) but failed to provide the information to the SEC, is not entitled to “whistleblower” status under Dodd-Frank, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(a)–(h), and is therefore cut-off from an anti-retaliation lawsuit and possible recovery of enhanced back pay. In rendering its decision, the Court explicitly rejected the SEC’s own interpretation of the statute, set forth in a final SEC Rule. The Court also rejected the decisions of the federal district courts that have considered the issue.
This has tremendous implications, at least in cases arising in the Fifth Circuit, both for employees and their regulated employers. Employees who want to be treated as a Dodd-Frank whistleblower and take advantage of its enhanced protections will have to provide information to the SEC of violations by the former employer. That means that the SEC will be involved much earlier in any internal corporate investigations that may be taking place. This is a bad idea for two reasons.
First, it undermines the extensive statutory and regulatory scheme already in place, which is designed to encourage companies to conduct rigorous internal investigation and then self-report to the SEC and/or DOJ. For example, under the Sentencing Guidelines, the DOJ’s Principals of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations, and the SEC’s Cooperation Initiative, “cooperation” credit may be awarded for self-reporting. Under Asadi, however, corporations may be forced to race to the SEC or DOJ before an employee does without the benefit of knowing if something wrongful has actually occurred.
Second, the rule in Asadi, if widely adopted, has the potential to undo the detailed compliance programs painstakingly put into place by in-house counsel and compliance officers for internal reporting, review, analysis, and disclosure to the government. If Asadi becomes the law of the land, corporate law and compliance departments will have to substantially overhaul those programs and deal with the uncertainty that it injects into the compliance realm.
 See Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC, No. 12-20522, 2013 WL 3742492 (5th Cir. July 13, 2013).
 See 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-2(b)(1).
 See, e.g., Kramer v. Trans-Lux Corp., 2012 WL 4444820, at *4 (D. Conn. Sept. 25, 2012); Nollner v. S. Baptist Convention, Inc., 852 F. Supp. 2d 986, 994 n. 9 (M.D. Tenn. 2012); Egan v. TradingScreen, Inc., 2011 WL 1672066, at **4-5 (S.D.N.Y. May 4, 2011).
 Such persons are still, however, entitled to a private cause of action for retaliation under Sarbanes-Oxley. See 18 U.S.C. § 1514A.