Articles Posted in Regulatory Audits & Investigations

At some point in their careers, many financial professionals will find themselves in the receiving end of a subpoena from Securities and Exchange Commission, “SEC” or a Financial Industry National Regulatory Authority “FINRA” 8210 Request. The receipt of such documents signifies the regulatory or self-regulatory agencies’ request for information and/or documents in relation to an investigation of a potential securities laws violation. While the Securities and Exchange Commission will formally issue a subpoena, FINRA sends parties the equivalent inquiry letter, often referred to as an “8210 Request”. Both entities can request the receipt of a wide range of information and a high number of documents within a short amount of time. Furthermore, recipients who do choose not to respond to these critical requests honestly could ruin their careers and lives. While the SEC subpoena and FINRA 8210 request may share some similarities, there are many differences based on the powers allotted to the respective regulatory agencies.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is a federal government regulatory agency entrusted to develop national regulations and enforce federal laws. Upon reasonable suspicion of securities laws violations, the SEC can issue a subpoena to anyone. Meanwhile, FINRA is not an official government entity, but rather the security industry’s self-regulated membership organization. FINRA has the authority to request documents, information, and testimony from those under its’ jurisdiction in a FINRA 8210 letter. Both the SEC and FINRA run a similar on-the-record “OTR” interview, with the option of an attorney present in the event of a testimony request. However, the SEC offers more response flexibility, protections under the Fifth Amendment and investigation information access in comparison with FINRA.

In the face of a potential securities law violation, the SEC will often send subpoenas to the targets as well as any potential witnesses with information. A SEC subpoena can demand documents (duces tecum) or oral testimony (ad testifcandum) without including context. The SEC can start an investigation by presenting their suspicions in a formal order of investigation. Chiefly, a former SEC Enforcement attorney, John Reed Stalk alleges that there is a  “low standard” of cause needed for approved subpoena issuance. The formal order of investigation mainly contains information regarding the scope and possible subjects of the investigation. Subpoenaed parties and their attorneys can request the order.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, there has been a recent trend at big brokerages of shifting the power from the headquarters to brokers and branch managers. Apparently big brokerages like Bank Of America, UBS Group, and Merrill Lynch are “unleashing” their brokers and moving power closer to the brokers and their managers, both to keep brokers from leaving their firms and to increase revenues.

These modifications come in the wake of declining revenues and broker exoduses several big brokerages have experienced after the financial crisis. They have also witnessed that brokers who dislike or disagree with their managers and find them unhelpful tend to leave the brokerages more easily. The big brokerages have had to deal with rising regulatory costs and competing with an increasing number of independent advisers. According to research conducted by consulting groups, the registered investment adviser model is more successful as it is a smaller and more tightly integrated groups. Taking a cue from that, the zillion dollar brokerages are making changes aimed at empowering, training and giving their brokers more control over day to day decisions over clients, growth, and resource allocation. Merrill Lynch has plans to restructure the brokerage leadership, emphasize more on productivity and training, and reduce the number of divisions. UBS also made similar changes last year.

There are plans underway to also automate investment advisory and make use of robos to cater to a younger clientele so that the brokers can be freed up to deal with high net worth clients. All in all, this gradual shift is geared towards taking things back to how they were before the financial crisis hit, when the field agents and managers had more autonomy to structure their branches, price and sell services, be less accountable to corporate headquarters, hold more power and sway.

When 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.

You 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.

Windsor 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.

Michael 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.

BlackRock 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.

A 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.

Morgan 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: