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US Securities and Corporate Governance

White Collar/Corporate Crime

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Defense Bill Significantly Bolsters SEC’s Disgorgement Authority

Introduction

The National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) became law on January 1, 2021 after Congress overrode a presidential veto of the legislation. While the NDAA appropriates funds for defense-related activities and the then-President objected to the legislation based primarily on collateral issues like liability for online content, the Act also will have a significant impact on securities law enforcement.  The legislation included language that significantly bolsters the power of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to obtain disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from securities law violators who are unjustly enriched. This is a reversal of fortune for the SEC, which has lost a string of recent notable court cases that curtailed its disgorgement authority.

Summary

The NDAA’s SEC-friendly provisions both solidify the agency’s authority to obtain disgorgement through its enforcement actions and provide a materially longer statute of limitations in which the SEC can file these actions. First, Section 6501 of the NDAA amends Section 21(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) to expressly authorize the SEC to obtain disgorgement as a remedy for violations of the securities laws. Prior to this amendment, the Exchange Act authorized the SEC to seek “any equitable relief that may be necessary or appropriate,”1 and courts routinely awarded the agency disgorgement as an equitable remedy. But this longstanding practice was hampered by two recent Supreme Court opinions, Kokesh v. SEC and Liu v. SEC.

In Kokesh, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that disgorgement constituted a “penalty” rather than “equitable relief” and was therefore subject to the five-year statute

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

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

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