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SEC Investigating Several Companies Over Whistleblower Treatment

Written by: Robert Heim

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has sent letters to several companies asking for years of nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts and other documents to investigate whether companies are muzzling corporate whistleblowers, the Wall Street Journal reported. The inquiries come as SEC officials have expressed concern about a possible corporate backlash against whistleblowers, the newspaper said.  The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act gave the SEC the power to start a whistleblower program that lets the agency reward people who report misconduct, if that tip leads to the collection of more than $1 million in monetary sanctions.

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Legal Developments in Securities Law

Dodd-Frank Update: Final Rule on Accredited Investor Standard

This week, the SEC released a final rule on the net worth standard for accredited investors.  The accredited investor standards, in Rules 215 and 501 under the Securities Act of 1933, are important to determine whether certain exemptions from registration apply under the securities laws. This is important with the following provisions:

  • Sec. 4(5) of the Securities Act:  Transactions involving offers or sales solely to one or more investors are exempt from registration if the aggregate offering price does not exceed $5 million, there is no advertising or public solicitation and the issuer files notice with the SEC;
  • Reg D of the Securities Act: Under the safe harbor provisions of Rule 505 or 506, the issuer is exempt from certain information requirements if sales are made only to accredited investors, and sales to such investors do not count toward the 35 purchaser limit under these safe harbor provisions. Also, there is no sophistication requirement under Rule 506 for accredited investors.

Under Section 413(a) of Dodd-Frank, the SEC was required to make certain changes to the existing standard.  Of greatest significance, the SEC has finalized the rule that now eliminates an individual’s primary residence as an asset in the calculation of his net worth.  Consistent with this approach, indebtedness secured by the person’s primary residence is not counted as a liability, unless the indebtedness exceeds the net worth of the property, in which case the excess indebtedness is treated as a liability. Notably, the indebtedness secured by the primary residence contains a 60 day period, where any incremental increase in the amount of debt secured by a primary residence in the 60 days before the time of the net worth calculation of an individual generally will be included as a liability.  This provision was included to prevent people from manipulating the rules by taking advantage of positive equity in their primary residence for the purposes of the net worth calculation.

If individuals previously qualified as an accredited investor, the new calculation of net worth will not apply to the purchase of securities in connection with a right to purchase such securities if:

  • The individual had the right to purchase the securities at issue on July 20, 2010;
  • The individual qualified as an accredited investor at the time the individual acquired the right to purchase the securities; and
  • The individual held securities of the same issuer, other than the right to purchase securities of the issuer, on July 20, 2010.

The SEC defined the types of rights to purchase securities it envisioned as “[T]he exercise of statutory rights, such as pre-emptive rights arising under state law; rights arising under an entity’s constituent documents; and contractual rights, such as rights to acquire securities upon exercise of an option or warrant or upon conversion of a convertible instrument, rights of first offer or first refusal and contractual pre-emptive rights.”

The SEC noted that some of the costs involved will include potentially estimating a fair market value of the individual’s primary residence for purposes of calculating whether indebtedness exceeds the value of the home and making additional calculations if the individual increases indebtedness that is secured by the primary residence in the 60 days prior to the net worth calculation.

Further rulemaking on this issue is expected – Section 415 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a “Study and Report on Accredited Investors” examining  “the appropriate criteria for determining the financial thresholds or other criteria needed to qualify for accredited investor status and eligibility to invest in private funds.”  The SEC will use this information in future rulemaking on this issue.  It is important for individuals who hope the take advantage of the exemptions related to the accredited investor standard to retain counsel with experience in this field and who will be able to offer advice on any future changes in these provisions.

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Legal Developments in Securities Law

Dodd-Frank Update: New Private Fund Rules Released

Recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) adopted final rules concerning the registration of advisers to private funds. Some of these rules varied greatly from the initial proposed rules. In the Release by the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), it was clear that many changes addressed commenters’ concerns with the proposed rules and their viability or effectiveness at achieving the rule’s purpose. Many commenters expressed concerns with certain fund advisers’ ability to provide reliably accurate data within a short deadline.

A number of these provisions are important to private fund advisers. To begin with, private fund advisers are divided into two general groups – a large private fund adviser or a smaller private fund adviser. Large private fund advisers are divided as follows:

  • Large Hedge Fund Advisers – $1.5 billion in hedge fund assets under management,
  • Large Liquidity Fund Advisers – $1 billion in combined liquidity fund and registered money market fund assets under management, and
  • Large Private Equity Fund Advisers – $2 billion in private equity fund assets under management.

Smaller private fund advisers are all other advisers, but note that not all smaller private fund advisers may be required to file the Form PF, if they have less than $150 million in private fund assets under management. Depending on the fund adviser’s classification, the deadlines to file the Form PF and the portions of the Form that must be completed will vary. The Form PF is a new reporting form developed to provide regulators with private fund information; notably, this Form will receive confidential treatment by the SEC and CFTC, although its contents may be disclosed to other Federal departments, agencies or self-regulatory organizations, in addition to the CFTC and FSOC. The Form PF is divided as follows:

  • Section 1: Information regarding the adviser’s identity and assets under management; limited information regarding the size, leverage and performance of all private funds subject to the reporting requirements, and; requires additional basic information regarding hedge funds.
  • Section 2: Aggregate information about the hedge funds the adviser manages; additional information about any hedge fund it advises that has a net asset value of at least $500 million as of the end of any month in the prior fiscal quarter.
  • Section 3: Information regarding the fund’s portfolio valuation and its valuation methodology, as well as the liquidity of the fund’s holdings; information regarding whether the fund, as a matter of policy, is managed in compliance with certain provisions of rule 2a-7 under the Investment Company Act.
  • Section 4: Information regarding the activities of private equity funds, certain of their portfolio companies and the creditors involved in financing private equity transactions.

Of course, the requirements and questions within each section are more detailed than the overview provided above, but private fund advisers should prepare themselves for the type of information that will be requested of them.

The deadlines to submit Form PFs to the SEC are categorized as follows:

  • Smaller Private Fund Advisers: Within 120 days after the end of the fiscal year. Reporting occurs on an annual basis. The previous proposed deadline provided 90 days.
  • Large Private Equity Advisers: Within 120 days after the end of the fiscal year. Reporting occurs on an annual basis. The previous proposed deadline provided only 15 days.
  • Large Hedge Fund Advisers: Within 60 days from the end of each fiscal quarter. Reporting occurs on a quarterly basis. The previous proposed deadline provided only 15 days.
  • Large Liquidity Fund Advisers: Within 15 days from the end of each fiscal quarter. Reporting occurs on a quarterly basis.

In addition to the new deadlines, the rules also made clear which portions of the Form PF each type of private fund adviser must complete, as follows:

  • Smaller Private Fund Advisers: Must provide only basic information regarding their operations and the private funds they advise, including their performance, leverage and investor data (all or portions of Section 1 of Form PF).
  • Private Equity Advisers: Must submit information on Form PF regarding the financing and activities of these funds in section 1 of the Form, and large private equity advisers are required to provide additional information in section 4 of the Form.
  • Hedge Fund Advisers: Must submit information on Form PF regarding the financing and activities of these funds in section 1 of the Form, and large hedge fund advisers are required to provide additional information in section 2 of the Form.
    • Under the rules, to be classified as a hedge fund, the private fund must have one of the following three characteristics:
      • (a) a performance fee that takes into account market value (instead of only realized gains)
      • (b) high leverage; or
      • (c) short selling.
  • Liquidity Fund Advisers: Must submit information on Form PF regarding the financing and activities of these funds in section 1 of the Form, and large liquidity fund advisers are required to provide additional information in section 3 of the Form.

Obviously, the above summary is provided as an indication of the requirements private fund advisers will face in the near future (as early as June 15, 2012 for some advisers). Private fund advisers should prepare for compiling, reviewing and filing the Form PF, and contact an experienced attorney if you have any questions.


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Legal Developments in Securities Law

How Can I Claim an SEC Whistleblower Award: Dodd-Frank’s Whistleblower Incentives

Under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), the whistleblower provision prohibited publicly traded corporations from taking any adverse employment action against an employee that internally reported or externally disclosed conduct reasonably believed to be a violation of any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or a violation of any provision of federal law concerning fraud against shareholders. While SOX was initially thought to provide important whistleblower protection, it soon became apparent that the laws under SOX did not do enough to encourage potential whistleblowers to come forward.

With the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act came great whistleblower incentives, including anti-retaliation provisions and the payment of bounty for a whistleblower’s tip, complaint or referral.  Since July 21, 2010, whistleblowers have been able to submit information to the SEC or CFTC pursuant to the new provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act, but the new Whistleblower Program took full effect today.

Individuals who feel they may have important information concerning a potential securities law violation should be aware of the following conditions:

Who Can Be a Whistleblower:

A whistleblower is not limited to an employee of a company, but can be any individual with original information about a potential securities law violation. Notably, companies and organizations cannot qualify as whistleblowers. In addition, a whistleblower will be denied a bounty if:

  • the whistleblower fails to submit information in accordance with the form required by the SEC
  • the whistleblower is or was at the time of submission a member of a regulatory agency, the Department of Justice, a self-regulatory organization, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, or any law enforcement organization
  •  the whistleblower is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action involved; or
  • The whistleblower learned the information through performing an audit.

What Entitles a Whistleblower to a Bounty: 

The Exchange Act has been modified to provide the whistleblower a monetary incentive if the individual provides information relating to a violation of ANY of the securities laws.  A whistleblower is entitled to an award if:

  • A proceeding by the SEC results in monetary sanctions which exceed $1 million
  • The information provided by the whistleblower came from the whistleblower’s independent knowledge or analysis
  • The information provided by the whistleblower is either the only source for the SEC of that information or if it was the original source for the SEC; and
  • The information provided is not exclusively obtained from a judicial proceeding or other public source, unless the whistleblower was the original source of that information.

What Kind of Bounty Could a Whistleblower Receive:

If all of these conditions are met, then the SEC is required to pay the whistleblower 10% -30% of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action.  Although the SEC is required to pay the whistleblower an amount from 10-30%, the actual amount is within the discretion of the SEC, dependent on factors such as the significance of the information provided, the degree of assistance from the whistleblower, the SEC’s interest in creating an incentive for reporting potential securities law violations and other factors as established by the rule or regulation.

The whistleblower “bounty” program creates an incentive that previously did not exist – a whistleblower could stand to benefit immensely from alerting the SEC or CFTC about a potential securities law violation. For example, if the SEC collects $2,000,000 in penalties, disgorgement and interest from its successful prosecution of securities law violations that were related to the original information provided by the whistleblower, the whistleblower could earn between $200,o00 and $600,000 for his or her tip, complaint or referral.

What Other Incentives Are Offered to Whistleblowers:

Anti-Retaliation: The Dodd-Frank Act now protects whistleblowers from being demoted, suspended, threatened, harassed (directly or indirectly) or in any way discriminated against because the whistleblower provided information to the SEC, assisted in any proceeding brought by the SEC based on such information or made any disclosures required or protected under SOX. The new legislation now provides a private cause of action for reinstatement of the same seniority status the whistleblower would have had but for the discrimination, two times the amount of back-pay otherwise owed, with interest, and compensation for litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Anonymity: If the whistleblower wishes to remain anonymous, he or she must retain an attorney to submit the information about a potential securities law violation to the SEC or CFTC.

What the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Incentives Mean:

With the new incentives in this legislation, individuals can gain a monetary reward in addition to greater legal protections from retaliation. Individuals who have experienced retaliation as a result of providing information to the SEC or those who feel they have important information to submit to the SEC should consider retaining an attorney with securities law experience to assist them with their retaliation claim or with submitting their information through the SEC’s online questionnaire or a Form-TCR. Of course, those individuals who wish to remain anonymous are required to retain an attorney to participate in the Whistleblower Program.

View the SEC’s Statement on the New Whistleblower Program


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