Articles Posted in Regulatory Audits & Investigations

dark-question-1-1193474-m-300x224When you receive an SEC subpoena, one of the first things that you want to know is “how long before this is over?” While that is an important question, it unfortunately is not one that has a definite answer.

Frequently, the time to produce materials will range from weeks to about a month. As we said yesterday in our post about what materials are required to be produced, an extension of time to produce documents may be negotiated. Also, if the materials requested are more difficult to obtain or require forensic computing, the time to produce may be longer as well.

Once you have produced documents, the waiting game begins. Before anything else happens, the Commission usually will review the materials you have provided. Typically, once they have reviewed your production, the Commission will either: 1. Make a supplemental request of you for more documents, 2. Call you in for testimony, or 3. Choose not to have you in for testimony.

subpoena-2-300x134You just received a Subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  What will you have to produce?  We regularly represent securities industry professionals and investors who have gotten these Subpoenas, and the reaction is usually the same: people are nervous and concerned.  How will this affect your business, and how what will it take the comply?

Getting an SEC Subpoena is a serious matter, and it is imperative that you carefully comply in a timely manner.  Subpoenas will typically require you to produce documents or testify, or both.  Your goal should always to limit your involvement with the federal authorities, and this begins with your production of documents in response to the Subpoena.

The first step is to remember that just because you received a Subpoena does not mean you automatically did something wrong.  You may not be the SEC’s target, but may be someone the Commission believes has information related to another person or business.  The SEC is not obligated to tell you whether they view you as a target or a witness, and you should not assume you are a target.

fraud-look-closelyWindsor Street Capital (formerly known as Meyers Associates) and its anti-money laundering (AML) officer, John D. Telfer, have been charged with securities violations by SEC, according to a recent report.  Windsor allegedly failed to report at least $24.8 million in questionable penny stock sales.  The violations cited by the SEC relate to the unregistered sale of hundreds of millions with insufficient due diligence, per InvestmentNews.

The suspicious transactions allegedly date back to June 2013 and resulted in nearly $500,000 in commissions and fees for Windsor, according to the SEC.  InvestmentNews reports that Mr. Telfer has been charged with aiding and abetting by virtue of his alleged failure to properly monitor the transactions at issue.

1207444_courtroom_1Michael J. Breton of Massachusetts was banned from the securities industry by the SEC according to a recent InvestmentNews report.  According to the report, Mr. Breton cost his clients $1.3 million by “cherry-picking” trades – i.e., placing trades through one central account then allocating the profitable trades to himself and the losing trades to clients.  This practice reportedly continued from 2011 to July of this past year.

 

On Wednesday, the SEC filed charges against Mr. Breton and Strategic Capital Management, Mr. Breton’s firm, in federal court in Massachusetts.  Mr. Breton has agreed to plead guilty to criminal securities fraud and forfeit $1.3 million, per the report.  According to InvestmentNews, the US Attorney’s Office has agreed to recommend a maximum sentence of no more than three years.

whistle-257897-mBlackRock has been charged by the SEC with removing whistleblower incentives in their separation agreements with employees, per the SEC. According to the Commission, BlackRock’s charges stemmed from allegations that the company forced employees to waive their ability to obtain whistleblower awards.

Provisions such as those in Dodd-Frank provide for monetary compensation to those who provide information to the SEC concerning securities law violations, provided certain criteria are met. Whistleblowers may also file anonymously.

Per the SEC, over 1,000 employees signed such agreements, in which the employee was forced to waive the right to monetary recovery as a condition for receiving separation payments from the company.

As reported recently, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has commenced an investigation into the cross-selling activities of several broker dealers in the wake of the Wells Fargo fallout. FINRA’s objective has reportedly been to determine just how much cross selling is taking place (including promotion of products such as credit cards and loans) and what incentives are being provided to employees to engage in the conduct.

FINRA-new-300x150A FINRA spokesperson was quoted as saying, ““In light of recent issues related to cross-selling, FINRA is focused on the nature and scope of broker-dealers’ cross-selling activities and whether they are adequately supervising these activities by their registered employees to protect investors.”

Supervision at broker dealers is a very critical aspect of customer service. It is important that brokers and their firms are only promoting and selling products to customers that are appropriate for that customer and in the customer’s best interest. As has been shown by the Wells Fargo disaster, cross-selling incentive programs can compromise that goal by creating a conflict of interest.

businessman-silhouette-1237565-228x300Morgan Stanley broker Armando Fernandez has been suspended by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) for 20 business days, according to publicly available FINRA records.  Per a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent filed with FINRA, Mr. Fernandez was accused of exercising discretion in a customer account without prior written acceptance of the account as discretionary from his member firm.  FINRA records indicate that Mr. Fernandez was also fined $7,500.

Generally, brokers are prohibited from placing trades in a customer account without speaking to the customer first, unless an account is a discretionary account.  When discretion is given by the customer to the broker, it is typically documented in a signed agreement.  When there is not such a signed agreement, and a broker executes transactions on a discretionary basis anyway, violations of FINRA Rules likely have taken place.

Customers who have been the victim of brokers improperly exercising discretion in their accounts (or violating other FINRA Rules) may be entitled to recover their losses in an action against the firm and/or broker responsible.

Brokers beware; FINRA is watching your firm, and you.  Becoming embroiled in a regulatory inquiry or investigation can become a major and costly headache and impediment to registered representatives’ business.

In January 2016, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) released its annual list of priorities, showing what sorts of sweeps they may perform, and investigations they may bring, in the coming year.  brokers working in the securities industry should be aware of the priorities that are relevant to them, including those having to do with sales practice.

FINRA’s 2016 Priorities make clear that they intend a top-down review of the following areas, which may lead to firm-wide or broker specific investigations, including:

The sad truth is that the Government loves the easy kill.  It is often easier for regulators to extract settlements and punishments against smaller market participants, including brokers, traders and analysts, than the giant wire houses, because large companies can match the resources of the Government.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), among other regulators, regularly engage in investigations to explore, deter and punish market conduct that violates the securities laws and industry rules.  While it can be hard to know what those investigations will be, the regulators like the SEC disclose regulatory priorities on an annual basis.  These examination priorities are areas where the SEC will be dedicating resources throughout 2016.

Of the 2016 Priorities announced by the SEC, the following may lead to broad investigations:

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Recently, FINRA issued the 11th Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter that addresses issues in the financial industry, if left unaddressed could adversely effect market integrity and investors. In 2016 their key points of emphasis have been identified as  (1) culture, conflicts of interest and ethics; (2) supervision, risk management and controls; and (3) liquidity. The Letter also highlights specific policies and procedures the FINRA will use to ensure that member firms are compliant with the priorities identified.

According to Richard G. Ketchum, CEO and Chairman, FINRA, “ Firm culture, ethics and conflicts of interest remain a top priority for FINRA. A firm’s culture contributes to, and is also a product of, a firm’s supervision and its approaches to identifying and managing conflicts of interest and the ethical treatment of customers. Given the significant role culture plays in how a firm conducts its business, this year the letter addresses how we will formalize our assessment of firm culture to better understand how culture affects a firm’s compliance and risk management practices.”

  • Culture, Conflicts of interest and Ethics