The SEC routinely hears appeals arising from FINRA disciplinary proceedings, and in turn issues “Adjudicatory Orders” announcing its decisions. To the extent that these Orders are issued by vote of the full Commission, they stand as highly useful guidance to industry players on the thoughts of the SEC’s ultimate leadership. In a recent Adjudicatory Order, the SEC articulated its current position on Chief Compliance Officer (“CCO”) liability for securities regulatory violations, as well as the liabilities of other members of a securities firm’s senior management for failure to supervise the CCO. See Application of Thaddeus J. North for Review of Disciplinary Action Taken by FINRA, Order of the Commission, Rel. No. 34-84500 (Oct. 29, 2018).
The facts of the case involve findings by FINRA that the CCO (Mr. North) of a multi-office 50+ representative brokerage firm violated FINRA rules by failing to establish a reasonable supervisory system for the review of electronic correspondence, failing to reasonably review electronic correspondence, and failing to report a relationship with a statutorily disqualified person. Specifically, despite being the person responsible for reviewing the firm’s electronic communications, the record showed that for a roughly two-year period North completely failed to review any Bloomberg messages/chats (such messages making up 85% of the firm’s electronic communications). North testified that he “did not understand” his firm’s Smarsh e-mail retention/retrieval system, and further attributed his failure to review electronic communications to that activity being “boring.” Separately, North failed to either independently investigate or report to FINRA his knowledge of a material relationship between one of his firm’s registered representatives and a statutorily-disqualified person. This particular failure came despite North’s knowledge that the representative had paid the disqualified person over $150,000, had executed a services agreement with that person, and that FINRA was actively investigating the matter.
On these facts, the SEC upheld FINRA’s disciplinary action as “clearly appropriate” in light of North’s “egregious” conduct in “fail[ing] to make reasonable efforts to fulfill the responsibilities of his position.” Notably, “North ignored red flags and repeatedly failed to perform compliance functions for which he was directly responsible.”