Articles Tagged with Enforcement

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently announced, on behalf of the Commission, a significant change in policy as to how the SEC will consider requests for disqualification waivers made by respondents in SEC enforcement proceedings where a settlement offer is being negotiated. We think that Clayton is to be applauded for this move as the new policy should prove to be a fairer and more efficient alternative to the status quo that has prevailed in recent years, most notably because it will give respondents a heightened degree of certainty regarding “collateral consequences” of an enforcement settlement.

First a bit of background. While the majority of SEC enforcement proceedings are resolved with a settlement agreement between the SEC and the respondent resulting in fines, restitution to investors, or other sanctions, a secondary or “collateral” consequence of the settlement may be statutory disqualification under the securities laws of the respondent (or an affiliate) from some otherwise permissible activity. A prime example is the so-called “bad-boy” provisions of Reg D, which, among other things, prohibit persons subject to SEC cease-and-desist orders or other SEC disciplinary orders from raising capital in a Reg D private placement. Another example is the prohibition on receipt of cash fees for solicitation under Rule 206(4)-3 of the federal Advisers Act where the solicitor is subject to certain SEC disciplinary orders. As noted by Clayton, “[t]he effects of these collateral consequences can vary widely depending on the scope of the businesses and operations of the entity and, in practice, range from immaterial to extremely significant.”  Continue reading

A recent decision handed down by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving SEC action against an adviser for failure to disclose material conflicts of interest provides potentially significant precedent for SEC enforcement proceedings going forward. See The Robare Group, Ltd., et al. v. SEC, No. 16-1453, (D.C. Cir. April 30, 2019). The Robare decision is a mixed bag for the SEC in that, while it affirmed the SEC’s findings of negligence against the adviser under one section of the Advisers Act, it threw out the SEC’s findings that the adviser “willfully” violated a second Advisers Act provision based on the same negligent conduct. Notably, the Court predicated its holding against the SEC on negligent behavior and willful behavior being “mutually exclusive.” The significance of this holding is that the SEC has traditionally applied a standard of willfulness in enforcement proceedings that falls short of the level of intent required by Robare. Accordingly, unless Robare is reversed or modified, the SEC will be forced to reconsider its prior practice of assuming that all voluntary conduct constitutes “willful” behavior going forward.

Robare involved an appeal by a Houston-based adviser, The Robare Group (“TRG”), of SEC administrative findings that TRG had violated Advisers Act Sections 206(2) and 207, and Rule 206(4)-7 under the Advisers Act, as a result of TRG’s inadequate disclosure of a “revenue sharing” arrangement with Fidelity Investments, whereby Fidelity compensated TRG in return for TRG clients investing in certain funds offered on Fidelity’s online platform. While TRG received approximately $400,000 over an eight year period from Fidelity under this arrangement, the SEC alleged that, during that same period, TRG failed (at first entirely and then inadequately) to disclose to its clients and to the SEC the compensation received from Fidelity and the conflicts of interest arising from that compensation.

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A recent pair of SEC enforcement Orders against registered investment adviser Talimco, LLC and its Chief Operating Officer Grant Rogers highlight the need for advisers to be ever-mindful of their fiduciary duties to both clients when effecting cross trades between such clients.

Cross trading occurs whenever an adviser arranges a securities transaction between two parties, both of whom being advisory clients of the firm. While “principal trading” (where the adviser buys or sells for its own proprietary account) and “agency cross trading” (where the adviser acts as a broker and receives compensation) are accorded heightened scrutiny and require additional disclosures and consents, this recent pair of Orders show that even ordinary cross trades can be highly problematic when one client is favored over another.

In this particular case, the SEC alleges that Talimco and Rogers went so far as to manipulate the auction price of a commercial loan participation in a sham transaction between two of its clients that distinctly advantaged one client over the other. Continue reading

Following several enforcement actions brought against registered investment advisers that received 12b-1 fees when institutional shares were available to be purchased in clients’ advisory accounts, in February of this year the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an initiative under which firms could self-report the receipt of “avoidable” 12b-1 fees since 2014.  Under the so-called Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative (SCSDI), advisers who self-reported receiving 12b-1 fees under those circumstances would be subject to an SEC enforcement action but would receive favorable treatment in such a case. Such favorable treatment included no recommended civil penalties as long as the firm agreed to disgorge all avoidable 12b-1 fees received.

In order to participate in the SCSDI, however, firms were required to report to the SEC by June 12, 2018. In announcing the SCSDI, the SEC indicated that firms that did not self-report may be subjected to harsher sanctions if their practice was later discovered.

In recent weeks through information available through clearing firm data and public sources the SEC has identified RIAs that may have received 12b-1 fee but chose not to self-report. Some of these firms are receiving subpoenas or requests for information and testimony.  Whether the failure to report was justified and/or the original receipt of the 12b-1 fees were not improper are questions that the SEC Enforcement Staff will be evaluating during its investigations.  In some limited circumstance a firm might be able to justify receipt of the questioned fess, and also might be excused from or ineligible for the self-reporting initiative. Continue reading

In October 2018, the South Carolina Court of Appeals vacated a $540,000 civil penalty that the South Carolina Securities Commissioner had imposed against John M. McIntyre and his company, Silver Oak Land Management, LLC.  The Commissioner imposed the penalty upon a determination that McIntyre and Silver Oak Land Management had committed securities fraud in the offer, sale, and management of various limited liability company interests.  The Court of Appeals, however, found that in the course of a hearing the Commissioner conducted, the Commissioner did not grant McIntyre and Silver Oak Land Management adequate procedural due process. Continue reading

In our previous post regarding state-registered investment advisers, we examined the landscape and discussed common deficiencies found in state adviser examinations.  In this post, we will discuss enforcement actions typically aimed at state-registered investment advisers, as well as current enforcement trends such as fraud pertaining to emerging markets and protection of senior investors.

Earlier in 2018, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA)  published its 2018 Enforcement Report.  This report contains information and statistics regarding NASAA members’ enforcement actions in 2017 and highlights current trends in enforcement actions aimed at state-registered investment advisers.

According to the Report, NASAA members received 7,998 complaints that resulted in 4,790 investigations.  Once the investigations were completed, NASAA members initiated 2,105 enforcement actions, over half of which were administrative actions.  Criminal actions made up the second largest number of enforcement actions, followed by civil and other types of enforcement actions. Continue reading

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against Massachusetts Financial Services Company (“MFS”), an SEC-registered investment adviser.  According to the SEC’s Order, MFS advertised hypothetical returns pertaining to its blended research stock ratings without informing clients that a number of the hypothetical portfolios’ superior returns were based on back-tested models.  Without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s Order, MFS submitted an offer of settlement to resolve the matter.

According to the SEC’s Order, MFS has employed a quantitative-based research department since 2000.  In 2000, the department developed what MFS calls “blended research” strategies, which involve “combining fundamental and quantitative ratings to arrive at a blended stock score, and by using a portfolio optimization process that considers the blended scores along with risk and other portfolio constraints.”  As of May of this year, MFS had approximately $21 million in assets under management invested in blended research strategies.

The SEC’s Order alleges that from 2006 through 2015, MFS created research proofs based on the blended research analysis. The data and a bar chart describing the analysis were featured in MFS advertisements.  MFS subsequently used the bar chart in three different kinds of marketing materials: in a standard slide deck from 2006 through 2015, in responses to formal requests from clients starting in 2012, and in a white paper that discussed MFS’s blended research strategies.  These materials were marketed exclusively to institutional clients, prospective institutional clients, financial intermediaries, and investment consultants.

On July 10, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission published five Orders Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against two registered investment advisers, three investment adviser representatives, and Leonard S. Schwartz, a marketing consultant.  The Orders allege that the respondents violated the Investment Advisers Act’s Testimonial Rule (275.206(4)-1(a)(1)).  The SEC also alleged that another investment advisory firm, Romano Brothers & Company (“Romano Brothers”), violated the Testimonial Rule by posting two videos on YouTube featuring client testimonials. The Testimonial Rule provides that investment advisers and their representatives are forbidden from publishing, circulating, or distributing advertising materials that directly or indirectly refer to client experiences about the investment adviser and its services. The SEC considers publication of client testimonials fraudulent because testimonials typically present a biased evaluation of an investment adviser’s services. Continue reading

On June 4, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an Order Instituting Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings against deVere USA, Inc. (“deVere”), a registered investment adviser.  The SEC’s Order alleges that deVere failed “to make full and fair disclosure to clients and prospective clients of material conflicts of interest regarding compensation obtained from third-party product and service providers.”  The Order also alleges that deVere made inadequate disclosures in its Form ADV, did not conform its compliance program to its method of doing business, and did not follow compliance requirements adopted in its compliance manual.  deVere submitted an offer of settlement in conjunction with the SEC’s Order. Continue reading

On May 16, 2018, SEC Co-Directors Stephanie Avakian and Stephen Piekin appeared before the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services.  At this meeting, Avakian and Peikin emphasized the importance of the budget increases requested by the SEC in February of this year.  The Commission’s Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification; Annual Performance Plan and Fiscal Year 2017 Annual Performance Report includes budget requests for each SEC division, including the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations.  As part of OCIE’s budget request, the SEC requested funding for “13 restored positions to focus on examinations of investment advisers and investment companies.”

According to the SEC, the number of registered investment advisers, as well as the amount of assets that they manage, has significantly increased in the last few years.  The SEC also anticipates that the number of registered investment advisers and the complexity of these investment advisers will continue to grow throughout 2018 and 2019.  Moreover, a hiring freeze, which began at the beginning of 2017, has caused the number of compliance staff to decrease.  The SEC anticipates that it will need funding to restore 100 positions that were lost because of the hiring freeze.  Therefore, the SEC believes that without the requested funding, SEC staff will be unable to address its growing responsibilities adequately. Continue reading