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New SEC Enforcement Priorities Likely Under Biden Administration

November 18, 2020

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BCLP Washington Partner Ashley Ebersole was quoted Nov. 13 by Compliance Week regarding possible new enforcement priorities at the Securities and Exchange Commission under a Biden administration. Much will hinge on selection of a new SEC chairman, as current Chairman Jay Clayton has announced his intent to step down at year end before his term officially is scheduled to end in June 2021. “Selection of the new SEC chair, whether from inside the agency or outside, will signal much in terms of the likely approach,” said Ebersole, a former SEC attorney. He also noted that compliance officers “should be prepared for a continued SEC enforcement focus on pursuing fraud involving Main Street investors, but also a likely redoubling of efforts to sanction conduct by financial institutions.”

Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

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Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

Authored by: Ashley Ebersole

On the heels of a nearly $50 million record whistleblower payout in June 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced on October 22 that it shattered that mark by awarding a whistleblower an extraordinary $114 million bounty. As described in the press release, the total included $52 million from the SEC, and a $62 million sum from “related actions by another [unspecified] agency.” The SEC’s Order further detailed that though the award arose from an action that was the subject of submissions from four would-be whistleblowers, the only payout was made to a whistleblower who (i) internally reported his or her concerns, (ii) provided information that caused the SEC and other agency to open investigations into the wrongdoing, (iii) provided “substantial and ongoing assistance” throughout the investigation that saved government time and resources, and (iv) suffered “serious personal and professional hardships” as a result of the whistleblowing activity. The SEC provided scant information on the target or substance of the underlying enforcement action, but the record award comes one month after the agency enacted amendments to its rules that were intended to “further incentivize whistleblowers” – something it would seem to be underscoring with windfall payments.

DOJ Releases Framework for Cryptocurrency Enforcement

On October 8, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released the publication “Cryptocurrency: An Enforcement Framework,” (“Framework”) which described emerging threats and enforcement challenges associated with cryptocurrency. DOJ’s Cyber-Digital Task Force produced the Framework to highlight important relationships DOJ has built with other domestic and international regulatory and enforcement partners, and its strategic response to address emerging issues concerning cryptocurrency and the “blockchain” or “distributed ledger” technology underlying it.  The Framework’s stated goal is to ensure that cryptocurrencies and associated technologies are safe and do not imperil public safety or national security. While DOJ explicitly recognizes cryptocurrency’s potential in the Framework, it also outlines both threats and illicit opportunities that cryptocurrency provides for nefarious actors.

For a full discussion of the Framework, please refer to this BCLP client alert co-authored by Ashley Ebersole, Ben Saul, Mark Sere and Jason Semmes.

SEC Puts SAFT Issuers On Notice (Again)

For the second time this year (see our previous reported here), a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York determined that an initial coin offering (“ICO”) involving the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (“SAFT”) framework constituted an unlawful unregistered securities offering, establishing a daunting precedent for both potential and past SAFT issuers.  The most recent such ruling came on September 30, 2020, in response to dueling Motions for Summary Judgment in the SEC v. Kik Interactive Inc. case, as profiled further here.

SEC Announces Charges Against Fulton Financial Corporation and Interface, Inc., in Bellwether of Increased Earnings Management Enforcement Activity

On September 28, the SEC announced charges against two public companies, Interface, Inc. (“Interface”) and Fulton Financial Corporation (“Fulton”), for violations related to the reporting of improperly calculated earnings per share (“EPS”) that enabled the companies to meet or exceed consensus analyst estimates.  In the case of Interface, charges were also levied against the company’s former Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”) and Chief Accounting Officer (“CAO”) for directing subordinates to book unsupported, manual accounting entries that did not comply with generally accepted accounting principles (“GAAP”). These enforcement actions are a result of the implementation of an “EPS Initiative” by the Division of Enforcement that seeks to leverage risk-based data analytics to identify potential instances of accounting and disclosure violations, including those resulting from earnings management practices.

The SEC focused on accounting entries recorded on Interface’s books during the period from the second quarter of 2015 through the second quarter of 2016. The SEC alleged that Interface reported financial results that did not accurately reflect the company’s actual performance, and, instead, inflated income and EPS figures to show consistent earnings growth.  The alleged misstatements were found to be materially misleading because the earnings reported in two quarters enabled the company to meet consensus analyst EPS estimates when, had the unsupported accounting entries not been made, the company would have delivered results below analyst estimates. The SEC alleged that a lack of adequate internal controls over financial reporting created an environment in which the CFO and CAO (then-Corporate Controller) were able to direct

SEC Amends Whistleblower Award Program Rules to Add Clarity, Efficiency and Transparency

On September 23, 2020, the SEC voted 3-2 to adopt long-awaited amendments to rules governing its Whistleblower Program. The amendments’ stated purpose is to provide greater clarity to whistleblowers, and increase the whistleblower program’s efficiency and transparency.  In addition, according to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, the “rule amendments will help us get more money into the hands of whistleblowers, and at a faster pace.” Click here to read the Alert in full.

Is There Life for SAFTs After the Telegram Case?

The final act in the saga between Telegram Group Inc. (“Telegram”) and the SEC was the June 26, 2020 court approval of the SEC’s settlement with Telegram, in which Telegram agreed to pay a civil penalty of $18.5 million and disgorge $1.224 billion to investors related to what the SEC claimed was an illegal unregistered public offering of securities.  This followed the court granting the SEC’s requested temporary restraining order in October 2019 (on an emergency basis) to prevent Telegram’s issuance of $1.7 billion in blockchain-based instruments (“digital assets”) known as “Grams.”

The abrupt termination of Telegram’s offering is particularly notable for the SEC’s treatment of the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (“SAFT”) offering framework, which its designers thought was  a creative solution to conduct “initial coin offerings” (“ICOs”) without triggering U.S. securities registration requirements. The two-step transaction contemplated by SAFTs was envisioned as enabling startups to secure an initial infusion of cash by selling in a private placement to accredited investors the right to receive digital assets when they were issued in the future. The digital asset community has been watching the Telegram case, hoping SAFTs would be spared the enforcement scrutiny that the SEC gave to ICOs.  However, recent SEC enforcement activity, including the order in SEC v. Telegram, suggests the SEC is viewing SAFTs as another breed of ICO, and successfully persuading federal courts to join that viewpoint.

Designers of the SAFT framework touted it as a potential avenue to issue digital assets without requiring registration

Supreme Court Affirms SEC Disgorgement Powers, But With Limits

Liu v. Securities and Exchange Commission,  the U.S. Supreme Court decision this week affirming the SEC’s right to seek disgorgement,  displayed a striking consensus on the securities regulatory agency’s ability to seek return to investors of wrongdoers’ ill-gotten gains.  The decision was not a complete victory for the SEC, however, since the Court also emphasized limitations on disgorgement that it suggested the SEC had exceeded with its past practices.

At issue was a remedy the SEC has long claimed the right to seek in civil enforcement actions: disgorgement of the defendant’s gains for return to injured investors.  The SEC in many fraud cases seeks both civil penalties, as authorized by statute, as well as disgorgement as an equitable remedy.  And courts generally permit that practice.

In light of certain recent Court rulings against the SEC on various issues and the Roberts court majority’s attitude toward administrative agencies generally, some securities practitioners anticipated a ruling in Liu that courts lacked the power to order disgorgement as a remedy in securities enforcement civil actions, upsetting years of prior judicial practice. However,  the Court’s June 22 decision in Liu affirmed the SEC’s right to seek disgorgement by an 8-1 vote, with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.

The majority opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor did identify certain limits on disgorgement, which may constrain the SEC from seeking disgorgement as freely as it has in the past. The opinion also articulated those limits in a manner that leaves substantial room for argument over how they

U.S. – Significant Increase in Complaints Brings Potential for Increased SEC Whistleblowing Activity

Among the myriad quarantine pursuits undertaken by the work-from-home crowd, whistleblowing appears to be proving popular. Recent reports indicate that the SEC received more than 4,000 Tips, Complaints, and Referrals (“TCRs”) regarding possible corporate malfeasance between mid-March and mid-May.  As noted by Division of Enforcement Co-Director Steve Peikin in a recent speech, that represents an approximate 35% increase over the same period last year.  This surge in TCRs has resulted in the SEC initiating hundreds of new investigations of alleged misconduct in the contexts both of COVID-19 and many other traditional areas.  After already facing challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, many employers may be surprised by this new COVID-19 side-effect.

Under the SEC’s Whistleblower Program, individuals who report TCRs containing high-quality original information that results in financial relief exceeding $1 million may be eligible for monetary awards ranging from 10% to 30% of that relief.  Since the Program’s inception, tips have resulted in more than $2 billion in financial relief, and more than $500 million in related whistleblower awards.  These figures include the recent record award of nearly $50 million to a single whistleblower on June 4, 2020.  Some have attributed the surge in TCRs to a combination of increasingly rich award sums, potential TCR filers’ being emboldened by their remote work environments and/or harboring increasing frustration over their job or financial situations, and enmity by furloughed or terminated employees.

Regardless of its cause, the increase in TCRs means that issuers and regulated entities should evaluate their

SEC reportedly investigating public disclosures by PPP loan recipients

We understand that several issuers and regulated entities that publicly disclosed their receipt of funds from the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, have received requests for information from the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. In general, the requested information appears to concern the recipients’ eligibility and need for PPP funds, the financial impact on recipients of the pandemic and government response, and recipients’ assessment of their viability and access to funding.

This SEC outreach is rumored to be part of a sweep styled In the Matter of Certain Paycheck Protection Program Loan Recipients. The SEC is reportedly investigating whether certain recipients’ excessively positive or insufficiently negative statements in recent 10-Qs may have been inconsistent with certifications made in PPP applications regarding the necessity of funding. These information requests are voluntary at this time, and it appears that not all PPP loan recipients are receiving document requests. There may be a correlation between large funding amounts and SEC scrutiny, both in terms of attracting interest and avoiding the impact of the SBA’s announced safe harbor for loans less than $2 million (though the safe harbor does not explicitly affect the SEC). Recent news reports indicate that the Department of Justice  Fraud Section also is investigating possible misconduct by PPP loan applicants. Initial DOJ actions have focused on potential overstatement of payroll costs and/or employee headcount, as well as misuse of PPP proceeds.  While existing allegations appear focused on extreme behavior, as

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