On September 2 and 3, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced settlements with Pareteum Corporation (“Pareteum”) and Kraft Heinz Co.[1] (“KHC”) for accounting fraud following years of alleged accounting improprieties and financial restatements at both companies.  The underlying facts differed in significant ways, including with respect to the alleged involvement of senior executives, but both companies apparently received cooperation credit for their prompt and proactive remediation and cooperation with the SEC Division of Enforcement’s investigations.  The messaging in relation to the announcement of these cases and their timing, coming in the early days of new Enforcement Director Gurbir Grewal’s tenure, is instructive.  We expect the SEC to continue to focus on accounting fraud and to credit companies who provide cooperation in these challenging and resource-intensive investigations.  To see a meaningful increase in the frequency and nature of cooperation, the SEC would be well-served to provide even more explicit guidance on how cooperation results in improved settlement terms.  That said, these recent settlements are helpful in understanding the benefits of cooperation at this time.
Continue Reading Two Recent Settlements Highlight Heightened SEC Focus on Accounting Fraud and Potential Benefits of Cooperation

On August 9, 2021, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against digital asset exchange Poloniex, Inc. for allegedly operating an unregistered exchange in violation of Section 5 of the Exchange Act in connection with its operation of a trading platform that facilitated the buying and selling of digital asset securities.[1]

In the cease-and-desist order, the SEC alleged that Poloniex met the definition of an “exchange” because it “provided the non-discretionary means for trade orders to interact and execute through the combined use of the Poloniex website, an order book, and the Poloniex trading engine.”  The SEC also found, based on internal communications, that Poloniex decided to be “aggressive,” ultimately listing token(s) it had internally determined carried a “medium” risk of being considered securities under the Securities Act of 1933 pursuant to the test set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in SEC v. W.J. Howey.[2]  However, the SEC did not identify what digital asset(s) it determined were securities nor why, simply stating that Poloniex facilitated trading of “digital assets that were investment contracts and therefore securities.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Poloniex agreed to the entry of the order and a payment of $10,388,309 in disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and a civil penalty.
Continue Reading SEC Enforcement Action Against Poloniex Signals Heightened Scrutiny for Crypto Exchanges

On July 29, 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed a securities and wire fraud indictment against Trevor Milton, the founder and one-time chairman of Nikola Corporation (“Nikola”), a pre-revenue electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicle company which went public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (“SPAC”).[1]  The Indictment alleges that Milton made deceptive, false, and misleading claims regarding Nikola’s products and technology, which were directed at retail investors through social media and television, print, and podcast interviews.  The SEC also filed a parallel civil action against Milton, alleging violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act, and which contends that Milton engaged in a “relentless public relations blitz” on social media and the popular press directed at “Robinhood investors” in order to inflate Nikola’s stock price.

These actions further confirm the heightened law enforcement and regulatory scrutiny of SPACs, as well as continuing interest by government authorities in protecting retail investors in so-called meme stocks.[2]
Continue Reading DOJ Indicts Founder of Nikola for Allegedly Defrauding Retail SPAC Investors

On July 13, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced a major enforcement action related to a proposed merger between a special purpose acquisition company (“SPAC”) and a privately held target company (“Target”).  This followed numerous warnings by the SEC staff over several months of enhanced scrutiny of such transactions under the federal securities laws.[1]  The respondents, except for the Target’s CEO, settled the action by collectively agreeing to civil penalties of approximately $8 million and to certain equitable relief described below. [2]
Continue Reading SEC Brings SPAC Enforcement Action and Signals More to Come

On May 12, 2021, Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (“Ericsson”) announced that it had reached an agreement to settle a claim by a competitor, Nokia Corporation, for €80 million (approximately $97 million).[1]  Although Nokia’s complaint against Ericsson was not filed publicly, and therefore the details of the claim are not known, Ericsson’s announcement stated that “[t]he settlement relates to events that were the subject of a 2019 resolution with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of investigations into Ericsson’s violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).”[2]  This appears to be a rare instance in which a company that allegedly paid bribes to obtain business from a government entity agreed to compensate a competitor that lost out on the business opportunity as a result of the corrupt conduct, and demonstrates a further, significant risk of follow-on litigation relating to FCPA violations.
Continue Reading Recent Settlement Highlights Risk of Follow-On Litigation Related to FCPA Investigations

On April 29, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) announced settled charges against eight public companies that filed notifications of late filings on Form 12b-25 (more commonly known as “Form NT”) without disclosing in those filings a pending restatement or correction of financial statements.

These settlements are a reminder that filing a Form

On March 5, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a lawsuit in federal court against AT&T, Inc. (“AT&T”) for violating Regulation FD, and also charged three of AT&T’s Investor Relations executives with aiding and abetting this violation.[1]  Reg FD (which stands for “Fair Disclosure”) prohibits companies from selectively disclosing material nonpublic information to certain categories of individuals, including analysts and investors, and is intended to promote full and fair disclosure of such information in order to ensure that all investors have equal access to potential market-moving information.[2]

Continue Reading SEC Brings Rare Litigated Enforcement Action for Violation of Regulation FD

On September 30, 2020, amidst a blizzard of cases filed at the end of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fiscal year, the SEC announced a settlement with BGC Partners, Inc. (“BGC”) involving allegedly misleading disclosures concerning how it calculated a key non-GAAP financial measure (“NGFM”).[1]   This settlement is the latest in a string of enforcement actions relating to what the SEC views as improper uses of NGFMs.  In advance of year-end reporting, this action is a useful reminder to companies to carefully consider the SEC guidance and recent enforcement actions related to NGFMs.  At least 95% of all Fortune 500 companies publish NGFMs, and the SEC has indicated that it will be reviewing NGFMs with particular scrutiny this year-end in light of the challenges of reporting on performance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Continue Reading SEC Brings Enforcement Action Against Global Brokerage Company, Finding False and Misleading Statements In Connection With Non-GAAP Financial Measures

On the eve of the U.S. presidential election last week, the SEC Enforcement Division released its annual report for fiscal year 2020 (the “Report”), providing an overview of the Division’s enforcement figures, developments, and areas of focus in what Director Stephanie Avakian described as “the most challenging year in recent memory.”[1]  This past year has marked, together with the longest shutdown in government history the year prior, a challenging but reasonably productive time for the SEC’s enforcement program.  Just as last year’s report highlighted the Division’s struggles during the fiscal shutdown, the final annual report of the Clayton-led SEC focuses on the significant disruption the COVID-19 pandemic has caused to the Division’s operations, investigations, and priorities, including the suspension of testimony for several months, establishment of a Coronavirus Steering Committee, and redirection of resources toward COVID-related fraud.  This time around, however, the Division could not avoid a drop-off in the number of enforcement cases, which seems attributable at least in part to the pandemic and its profound impact on the SEC’s operations.
Continue Reading From Government Shutdown to COVID-19: SEC Enforcement Division Releases Final Chapter of Jay Clayton-led SEC

Late last week – for the first time in 40 years – the SEC announced a settlement of an internal controls case against an issuer arising from its repurchase of its own shares. The SEC found that Andeavor bought back $250 million of stock without first engaging in an adequate process to ensure that the