Articles Tagged with Compliance

The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently announced a proposal to amend Rules 203(l)-1 and 203(m)-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”). The purpose of these proposed amendments is to “reflect changes made by… the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (the “FAST Act”).” The FAST Act amended sections 203(l) and 203(m) of the Advisers Act to provide advisers to small business investment companies (“SBICs”), venture capital funds, and certain private funds with additional avenues to registration exemption.

SBICs are commonly defined as privately-owned investment companies that are licensed and regulated by the Small Business Administration (“SBA”). They typically provide a vehicle for funding small businesses through both equity and debt. Section 203(b)(7) of the Advisers Act provides that investment advisers who only advise SBICs are exempt from registration. Moreover, investment advisers who use the SBIC exemption are not obligated to comply with the Advisers Act’s reporting and recordkeeping provisions, and they are not subject to SEC examination. Continue reading

On May 24, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a complaint against an options trading instructor and unregistered investment adviser, Gustavo A. Guzman (“Guzman”).  The complaint alleges that Guzman obtained more than $2.1 million from investors, assuring them that their funds would be invested in equity options and real estate.  However, evidence showed that Guzman misappropriated a third of the funds “and lost the remainder through his options trading while misleading existing or prospective investors.”

Guzman was not registered as an investment adviser with the SEC or any state authority.  However, he was tasked with managing investments in two private funds specializing in options trading and one real estate hedge fund.  He also received management fees for managing these funds.  As a result, Guzman met the definition of an investment adviser in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) and was subject to its anti-fraud provisions. Continue reading

On May 17, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC’s”) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) published a Risk Alert pertaining to cybersecurity.  According to the Risk Alert, an extensive ransomware attack called WannaCry, WCry, or Wanna Decryptor “rapidly affected numerous organizations across over one hundred countries.”  In light of the WannaCry attack, OCIE is urging registered investment advisers, broker-dealers, and investment companies, to address cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

According to the Risk Alert and an alert published by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Cert Alert TA17-132A, the hacker or hacking group who instigated the WannaCry attack obtained access to enterprise servers by way of exploiting a Windows Server Message Block vulnerability. WannaCry infects computers using software that encrypts data on a server using a .WCRY file-name extension, which prevents the rightful owner from accessing the data. Once infected, the ransomware software demands payment from the business in return for access to the business’ data. Microsoft released a patch to this vulnerability in March of 2017, but many users of Microsoft operating systems do not diligently update their software. Continue reading

On January 13, 2017, the United States Supreme Court agreed to examine a case involving the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC’s”) ability to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in fraud cases, including fraud cases involving investment advisers.  The case, Kokesh v. SEC, raises the issue of whether claims for disgorgement are subject to a five-year statute of limitations on civil penalties.  Oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court in April.

The underlying case involves a New Mexico investment adviser named Charles R. Kokesh (“Kokesh”), who acted as an investment adviser to various funds organized as limited partnerships.  The SEC filed suit against Kokesh, alleging that from 1995 through 2006, Kokesh ordered the funds’ treasurer to take money from the funds to pay various expenses, including $23.8 million for salaries and bonuses to the funds’ officers, including Kokesh, $5 million for office rent, and $6.1 million characterized as “tax distributions.”  According to the Tenth Circuit, the payments violated the funds’ contracts because the contracts did not permit payments for salaries of the funds’ controlling persons, including Kokesh, until 2000.  The contracts also did not address bonus payments, and they only permitted payment of tax obligations if certain prerequisites were present.  A jury found that Kokesh violated the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, among other statutes, and the District Court ordered Kokesh to pay a $2.4 million civil penalty, plus disgorgement of $35 million based on amounts going back to 1995.

In response, Kokesh appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the disgorgement was a penalty subject to a five-year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462.  The SEC argued that the disgorgement was remedial and not punitive, and therefore not a penalty subject to the statute of limitations.  The Tenth Circuit agreed with the SEC and held that disgorgement was not a penalty.

On April 10, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced that it brought enforcement actions against 27 firms and individuals.  According to the SEC, these firms and individuals published articles on investment websites about various companies’ stock.  The articles did not disclose to investors, however, that they were not “independent, unbiased analyses,” and they allegedly gave investors the opinion that they were.  The articles also did not have any disclaimers stating that the authors were being paid for promoting various companies’ stock.

The SEC conducted investigations through which it found that public companies engaged promoters or communications firms to create publicity for their stocks.  The promoters and communications firms then employed writers to write articles about the companies.  These articles, however, did not inform the public that the writers were receiving compensation from the public companies.  The SEC claims that, because these articles did not disclose the compensation arrangement, they created the impression that they were impartial when in fact they were “nothing more than paid advertisements.”  Moreover, the SEC found that more than 250 articles contained untrue statements that the writers were not being paid by the companies that their articles were discussing.  As a result, the SEC is alleging that the relevant firms and individuals committed fraud. Continue reading

On February 7, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) released a list of five compliance topics that are the most commonly identified topics “in deficiency letters that were sent to SEC-registered investment advisers.”  OCIE published this list in a National Exam Program Risk Alert in order to help advisers who are conducting their annual compliance reviews.

The first compliance topic was compliance with the Compliance Rule, Rule 206(4)-7, which requires an investment adviser to create and execute written policies and procedures that are reasonably tailored to prevent the investment adviser and its supervised persons from violating the Advisers Act and to detect potential violations.  The rule also requires an investment adviser to review the sufficiency of its policies and procedures at least annually and to appoint a chief compliance officer.  According to OCIE, common violations of the Compliance Rule include not having a compliance manual that is reasonably suited to the adviser’s method of doing business, failure to conduct annual reviews or annual reviews that did not cover the sufficiency of the investment adviser’s policies and procedures, failure to follow policies and procedures, and compliance manuals that are outdated.

The second topic that OCIE identified was compliance with the Advisers’ Acts rules on regulatory filings.  For example, Rule 204-1 provides that investment advisers must make amendments to their Form ADV on at least an annual basis, and the amendments must be made “within 90 days of the end of their fiscal year and more frequently, if required by the instructions to Form ADV.”  For investment advisers to private funds, Rule 204(b)-1 provides that an investment adviser must file a Form PF if the investment adviser is advising a private fund or fund with assets of $150 million or more.  Finally, Rule 503 of Regulation D of the Securities Act of 1933 provides that issuers of private funds must file a Form D, and investment advisers usually file the Form D for their private fund clients.  OCIE determined that the most frequent violations of these rules were inaccurate disclosures on Form ADV Part 1 or Part 2A, late modifications to Form ADVs, faulty and late Form PF filings, and faulty and late Form D filings.

On January 25, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a complaint in the District Court for the District of Massachusetts (“District Court”) against Strategic Capital Management, LLC (“SCM”), an investment advisory firm, and its owner, Michael J. Breton.  The complaint alleges that Breton, through SCM, garnered about $1.3 million by defrauding clients using what is known as a “cherry-picking” scheme.  The action follows a similar action brought by the SEC last October.

According to the SEC, cherry-picking occurs when an investment adviser “defrauds clients by purchasing stock and then waiting to see if the stock price goes up, or down, before deciding whether to keep the trades… or to put the trades into clients’ accounts.”  Cherry-picking typically involves the investment adviser allocating more profitable trades to its own accounts and allocating less profitable ones to client accounts.  It is a breach of fiduciary duty because it entails an investment adviser placing its interests above those of its clients.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that from about January 2010 through August 2016, Breton and SCM were investment advisers to numerous client accounts.  Breton, through SCM, bought public companies’ securities using a block trading omnibus account known as a “Master Account.”  Through this Master Account, Breton was permitted to make orders for both his personal accounts and his clients’ accounts.

On January 17, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued ten Orders Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings (“Orders”) against ten investment advisory firms.  In each of its Orders, the SEC alleges that each investment advisory firm gave money to campaigns for politicians who, if elected, would have the power to determine the choice of investment advisers to oversee government assets, and subsequently gave investment advisory services to public pension funds.  According to the SEC, these actions constituted violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”).

Rule 206(4)-5(a)(1), commonly known as the Pay-to-Play Rule, provides that investment advisers who are registered with the SEC, foreign private advisers, and exempt reporting advisers are not permitted to provide “investment advisory services for compensation to a government entity within two years after a contribution to an official of a government entity made by the investment adviser or any covered associate of the investment adviser.”  This rule applies regardless of whether the investment adviser or covered person intended to sway the official.  According to the SEC’s Orders, five of the investment advisory firms were SEC-registered investment advisers, while the remaining five were exempt reporting advisers.  Thus, all ten of the investment advisory firms were subject to the provisions of Rule 206(4)-5(a)(1). Continue reading

On January 4, 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) published its Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (“Priorities Letter”).  The Priorities Letter notifies firms about issues that FINRA intends to examine in 2017.  It is also intended to let firms know which of these issues are relevant to their businesses so that the firms can improve their compliance with FINRA rules and their risk management programs.

According to the Priorities Letter, FINRA draws its examination priorities from both observations made in the course of regulation and suggestions from a variety of outside sources.  Evidence has shown that many FINRA-registered firms have found past Priorities Letters helpful in making sure their business is in compliance with FINRA rules.  Finally, FINRA assures readers of the Priorities Letter that in formulating an examination, FINRA looks to factors such a firm’s “business model, size and complexity of operations, and the nature and extent of a firm’s activities against the priorities outlined in this letter.”

FINRA intends to prioritize the following issues in 2017. Continue reading

On November 23, 2016, Wells Fargo successfully defended a class action lawsuit relating to the recent fake account scandal, Mitchell v. Wells Fargo Bank NA.  This class action lawsuit, filed by three Wells Fargo customers in the United States District Court for the District of Utah, called for at least $5 million in damages, as well as potential punitive damages, stemming from the bank’s opening of at least 2 million accounts that its customers did not authorize.  However, Wells Fargo succeeded in having the case referred to arbitration, citing clauses in its account agreements compelling arbitration in the event of a dispute, as well as a September 2015 case from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California that also involved Wells Fargo’s alleged opening of unauthorized accounts. Continue reading