Russ Berland

Ed. Note-today we have a guest post from KC Royals fan and Stinson Leonard Street partner Russ Berland. 

As a Kansas City Royals fan, I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate the Royals on a great season and say to them, “Ya done good.”  Despite losing an extremely close seventh World Series game to a very able and talented San Francisco Giants team, which included a pitcher whose name and face will one day be memorialized in Cooperstown, this year has been a banner, or should I say, a pennant year for the boys in blue.

The SEC likewise would like to take a moment to be congratulated on their banner year in their annual enforcement preview of their Agency Financial Report.  So here goes … The SEC wants us to know that they are using creative means to find misconduct on their own and go after it, to hold people and corporations accountable,  and to pay and protect whistleblowers.  On October 16, the SEC put out its official preview of its upcoming Agency Financial Report for FY 2014.  The SEC’s fiscal year ends September 30, so this spans every enforcement action the SEC has taken since October 1, 2013.  The report has four major themes:

  1. The SEC is enforcing the law against people, not just companies. It takes people to commit misconduct on behalf of companies so those same people should be held accountable.  And if the SEC is counting on you to watch over companies and transactions you better take it seriously.  The SEC does and they will hold you accountable.  The preview made this point in showcasing its major enforcement actions against Fifth Third Bancorp and its former CFO, Diamond Foods Inc. and its former CEO and CFO, World Capital Market and its founder, and many, many others.  The most poignant example was the enforcement action against the Chairman of the Audit Committee of AgFeed Industries, Inc.  The SEC alleges that Ivan Gothner, the chairman of AgFeed’s audit committee received information that AgFeed’s Chinese operations were conducting accounting fraud and instead of taking a fellow director’s advice to “hire professional investigators guided by outside legal counsel,” he directed internal resources to assess the situation.  When that resulted in late and inadequate information, the SEC charged him “with violating or aiding and abetting violations of the anti-fraud, reporting, books and records, and internal controls provisions of the federal securities laws” and ” with making false statements to AgFeed’s outside auditors.”  Andrew Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, called this “a cautionary tale of what happens when an audit committee chair fails to perform his gatekeeper function in the face of massive red flags.”
  2. Corporations must admit their actions. Last year, the SEC Chairman, Mary Jo White, announced that more companies must admit their wrongdoing in settlements.  The SEC’s Admissions Policy states that the companies may be required to admit their wrongdoing when there is “(1) misconduct that harmed large numbers of investors, or placed investors or the market at risk of potentially serious harm, (2) egregious intentional misconduct, or (3) when the defendant engaged in unlawful obstruction of the commission’s investigative processes.”  Now, the Preview adds two more categories to those required to make admissions: “[4] where an admission can send a particularly important message to the markets, or [5] where the wrongdoer poses a particular future threat to investors or the markets.”  For example, in the settlement with ConvergEx for misrepresenting its commissions to brokerage customers, ConvergEx was required to admit the facts stated by the SEC and admit that it had violated Securities Laws.  In one interesting twist, Wells Fargo Advisors LLC was forced to admit its wrongdoing when one of its brokers traded on non-public information about the sale of Burger King to a private equity firm. The “wrongdoing” that Wells Fargo Advisors admitted encompassed inadequate policies, inadequate coordination among internal groups tasked with policing insider trading and the compliance officer who should have spotted the insider trading missing it. This is an interesting view of what constitutes “egregious intentional misconduct.” The message seems to be that in order to settle a matter with the SEC without admitting or denying facts or legal conclusions, the defendant will need to prove they do not fit in one of the five listed categories.  It’s possible that the SEC forced Wells Fargo Advisors to admit it’s wrongdoing because it delayed production of relevant documents or because one of the documents that they turned over had been altered by the compliance officer herself.  Or perhaps they are sending “a particularly important message” to compliance officers that they need to be vigilant in doing their jobs.
  3. Whistleblowing Pays.  In FY2014, the SEC paid $35 million to 9 whistleblowers.  One of them received $30 million by him or herself.   Because the SEC rules protect the identity of whistleblowers, we don’t know who got paid.  But the SEC whistleblowing process has multiple stages, which include bringing original information or an original analysis of existing information to the SEC, having the SEC pursue that information leading to a prosecution, and successfully prosecuting or settling that matter with a recovery of over $1 million.  This takes  a long time from beginning to end.  Dodd Frank was passed in 2010.  The first REAL money ($14 million) was paid last year.  And now someone is getting $30 million.  The pipeline took a while to fill, but it is reaching a full state and we can probably expect to see a lot more whistleblower payments in the next few years.
  4. If you don’t come to us, we’ll find you. The SEC is using more and more data analytics on financial and trading activity to find wrongdoers.   According to the SEC, ” innovative use of data and analytical tools contributed to a very strong year for enforcement marked by cases that spanned the securities industry.”   Right now, they are telling us that they are using those techniques to look at filing deficiencies, hedge fund returns, and insider trading.  But we can anticipate they are looking at more than just those categories and we should expect to see more and more use of these techniques over broader areas in the coming years.  And, the SEC is telling us that they are also currently implementing and developing “next generation tools” to review market and other data for suspicious activity.

So, this Preview of the FY2014 Agency Financial Report suggests that the SEC should not be seen as sitting back and waiting for cases to come to them.  And when companies and people violate Securities Laws, the SEC will work hard to make sure that they each take accountability, either personally through fines and penalties or corporately, through admissions.   Like the Royals, the SEC would like us to know that they have had a banner year.

Berland can be reached at russ.berland@stinsonleonard.com. He was lead investigative counsel for Layne Christensen in its recently concluded FCPA enforcement action by the SEC. In my podcast, the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report, Episode 104, I interview Berland on how the company was able to receive a declination from the DOJ. The Episode will post Thursday, Nov. 7.

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