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SEC Alerts RIAs/BDs to Cloud Provider Monitoring Obligations

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) has issued a Risk Alert warning firms to monitor and supervise third-party cloud providers that house their regulatory data. OCIE has observed many firms failing to properly configure security settings and thereby neglect to utilize available security services such as encryption and password protection. OCIE has also seen weak oversight of third-party cloud providers including failures to assess information security and utilization of available security features. OCIE would like to see significant policies and procedures addressing the installation, maintenance and review of network storage solutions as well as robust vendor management policies that require the regular implementation of software patches and hardware updates.

Firms can (and probably should) outsource their network and data storage to qualified vendors, but they cannot abdicate their responsibilities to ensure the data is protected from unauthorized intrusion. The compli-pros must work with the IT folks to assess the cloud provider’s ongoing compliance.

FINRA Proposes More Segregated Capital for Firms that Hire Bad Brokers

FINRA has proposed a new rule that would require broker-dealers with a large number of disciplinary events to set aside segregated funds to pay future penalties or arbitration awards. Proposed Rule 4111 (Restricted Firm Obligations) would score each firm against its peers based on registered person and member firm adjudicated events and expulsions. Based on FINRA’s grid, the firm would be required to deposit funds in a segregated account until the firm takes action to remedy the situation, thereby allowing a reduction in the amount deposited. FINRA seeks to address the small number of firms that attract brokers with significant disciplinary records but have not appropriately responded to FINRA’s previous efforts to require heightened supervision or enhance sanctions.

On the positive side, requiring what amounts to a net capital penalty should get the attention of senior leaders at these problem firms. On the other hand, FINRA needs to be careful that such a firm doesn’t make a cold calculation to hire a bad broker if the broker’s production offsets the additional financial obligation.

Broker-Dealer Failed to File SARs for Pump-and-Dump Transactions

A broker-dealer was censured, fined, and ordered to retain an independent consultant in connection with failures to file Suspicious Activity Reports about pump-and-dump schemes. The SEC alleges that the firm neglected to file SARs even though it acknowledged several red flags including deposits of physical securities followed by rapid fund withdrawals, SEC investigations that led the firm to close accounts, trading away through other firms, questionable attorney opinions, and suspicious communications. The SEC acknowledges that the firm’s AML procedures identified certain red flags and how employees should report suspicious transactions, but the SEC faults the firm for failing to implement procedures, investigate red flags, and file SARs. The Bank Secrecy Act requires broker-dealers to file SARs when it suspects a transaction that has no business or apparent lawful purpose or is not the sort in which the particular customer would normally be expected to engage.

We think that FINRA and the SEC should take a hard look at the SAR filing regime. In this case, the broker-dealer appears to have facilitated several pump-and-dump schemes, and we don’t question that the SEC should have acted. What creates confusion is the leveraging of the Bank Secrecy Act and the SAR system, which was intended to combat anti-money laundering, as a catch-all reporting mechanism for any suspected regulatory violation whether or not it involved money laundering activity. Why should FinCen be involved in policing pump-and-dump schemes or other non-AML securities violations?

Fund Manager Barred for Misusing Soft Dollar Credits

The principal of a hedge fund manager was fined and barred from the industry, and his firm’s registration was revoked, for misusing soft dollar credits and cherry-picking trades. According to the SEC, the fund manager misused over $1.1 Million in soft dollar credits to pay such expenses as alimony to his ex-wife, inflated rent to an affiliated company, salary to an employee, and timeshare expenses. The SEC notes that such payments contradicted disclosures in the PPMs and the Form ADV. The SEC also charges the firm with engaging in an illicit cherry-picking scheme to enrich certain hedge fund clients over other clients.

We are seeing a renewed SEC interest in how firms use soft dollar credits. Although the facts of this case date back several years, this action may portend future regulatory and enforcement initiatives.

Federal Court Says that Outside Advice is Not a “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card”

The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the SEC’s decision that an investment adviser failed to fully disclose mutual fund revenue sharing even if it sought and relied on the advice of outside compliance consultants. The Court found that the adviser acted negligently by failing to fully disclose the conflict of interest inherent by receiving shareholder servicing payments for investing in certain funds offered by its broker/custodian. Although the record was unclear about whether the adviser sought or relied on an outside compliance consultant’s advice, the Court decided that it didn’t matter because “any reliance on such advice was objectively unreasonable because [the adviser] knew of their fiduciary duty to fully and fairly disclose the potential conflict of interest.” The Court did, however, throw out the SEC’s claim that the adviser intentionally filed a misleading Form ADV, because the SEC failed to show that the adviser acted with the requisite intent to deceive.

As we have previously reported, this case argues in favor of seeking outside advice because it will help defend against the claim that you acted with intent, which would draw more punitive penalties. However, the Court here makes clear that relying on outside advice, even though you (should) know otherwise, will not exonerate you from claims that you acted negligently.

Name-Dropping in Offering Materials Leads to Securities Fraud Charges

The Canadian-based principal of a company formed to invest in blockchain companies and digital assets was fined and censured by the SEC for making misrepresentations while soliciting capital. According to the SEC, the respondents used slide decks and other materials that falsely claimed that four prominent blockchain individuals served as advisors to the company. The respondents boasted “access to, and unparalleled relationships with, opinion-makers, the best entrepreneurs, and the highest profile figures in the blockchain community.” The SEC maintains that these false statements helped raise $16 Million in a convertible debenture offering. The Ontario Securities Commission imposed an additional $520,000 fine following a court order whereby the principal agreed to forego his $2 Million interest in the company.

Didn’t know that name-dropping could result in securities fraud? Any misstatement arguably relied upon by investors could give rise to Section 17(a)(2) charges of offering securities by means of an untrue statement of a material fact.

Adviser Failed to Disclose Personal Financial Problems

A state registered adviser was barred from the industry for failing to disclose a personal bankruptcy on Form ADV in addition to other charges. The Colorado Securities Commissioner cited a Form ADV that contained material omissions about the respondent’s 2017 personal bankruptcy and otherwise misrepresented his qualifications. The CSC also charged the respondent with overcharging clients and intentionally concealing the misconduct. The SEC also barred the adviser from the industry.

Form ADV, Item 18.B. specifically requires investment advisers to “disclose any financial condition that is reasonably likely to impair your ability to meet contractual commitments to clients.” Item 18.C. also requires the disclosure of any bankruptcy petition during the prior 10 years. As investment advisers struggle financially, compli-pros should assess whether the firm needs to enhance its financial condition disclosure.

SEC Official Warns Firms Not to Shortchange Compliance

In a recent speech, the Director of the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, Peter Driscoll, admonished firms who do not adequately resource the compliance function. Calling compliance officers “partners,” Mr. Driscoll lauded their role on the “front lines” of regulatory compliance. Mr. Driscoll said that he could not “underscore enough a firm’s continued need to assess whether its compliance program has adequate resources to support its compliance function.” OCIE is concerned “when we hear directly from industry participants and read press reports that compliance resources and budgets are being cut or are not keeping up with firms’ risk profiles.” He stressed the importance of compliance as equal to other key business lines, critical to the success of the overall business in its role to protect the trust of clients, investors, and customers.

We have observed OCIE staff specifically ask about compliance resources and spending during examinations. Based on various research studies and our own empirical experience, firms should benchmark to spend at least 5% of revenue on compliance resources including personnel and technology. Of course, the actual spending should vary depending on the complexity and size of the business.

SEC Proposes Streamlining Financial Information for Fund Acquisitions

The SEC has proposed modernizing the financial information for acquisitions and dispositions, including the acquisitions of investment companies. Proposed changes to Regulation S-X and Form N-14 include eliminating certain pro forma financial statement requirements and changing the “significant subsidiary” test. The proposal also includes specific reporting rules for investment companies rather than relying on financial statement requirements generally applicable to the acquisition of operating companies.

Revising the investment company acquisition process should facilitate legitimate transactions while ensuring that shareholders receive relevant, rather than voluminous, financial information.