February 16, 2021

SEC Enforcement: Powering Up

Last week, Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee announced that she’s restored to senior Enforcement Staff the power to approve the issuance of Formal Orders of Investigation, which designate who can issue subpoenas in an investigation. That means that Enforcement Staffers will be able to act more quickly to subpoena documents and take sworn testimony.

This is a reversal of the policy that then-Acting Chair Mike Piwowar implemented in the early days of the Trump administration – and departure from the traditional requirement for Enforcement Staff to obtain sign-off from the Commissioners on a Formal Order of Investigation before issuing subpoenas. Former Chair Mary Shapiro first expanded the subpoena power back in 2009, in the wake of the Bernie Madoff fiasco.

Decentralizing the power to pursue enforcement actions is a sign that the pendulum is currently swinging toward the “investor protection” aspect of the SEC’s mission. This job posting suggests that the Enforcement Division also might be staffing up. We don’t know for sure that these steps will lead to a higher number of investigations – see this Jenner & Block memo for key open questions that will determine how aggressive things could get. Nevertheless, companies are unlikely to view them as a positive development.

SEC Severs Enforcement Settlements & “Bad Actor” Waivers

Also last week, Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee issued this statement to reverse the Clayton-era policy of simultaneously considering enforcement settlements and requests for waivers from “bad actor” consequences – e.g., loss of WKSI status, Rule 506 eligibility and PSLRA safe harbors. Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman followed with their own statement to object to the policy change.

The move means that waiver requests will revert to the domain of Corp Fin and the Division of Investment Management, rather than everything being negotiated by the Enforcement Division and companies being able to condition their settlement offers on the grant of a “bad actor” waiver. This Sullivan & Cromwell memo explains the three-fold impact of separating settlement & waiver conversations:

First, the change in policy signals greater skepticism on the part of the SEC with respect to granting waivers to settling entities. We expect that waivers will become more difficult to obtain and, when granted, may include additional, and potentially more burdensome, conditions.

Second, the change in policy creates increased uncertainty for entities settling with the SEC because they can no longer be guaranteed Commission review of the settlement of their enforcement matter simultaneously with their requested waivers. The impact of this change as a practical matter is unclear. If a settling party is denied a waiver and then seeks to withdraw its settlement offer, it remains to be seen whether the SEC will nevertheless proceed to seek judicial approval of the settlement in the face of such attempted withdrawal.

Third, the change in policy indicates the SEC’s intent to keep waiver discussions substantially separate from enforcement recommendations. Our understanding is that these discussions generally happen separately in any case, so we do not view this as a substantive change.

Tomorrow’s Webcast: “Private Offerings – Navigating the New Regime”

Tune in tomorrow for the webcast – “Private Offerings: Navigating the New Regime” – to hear Rob Evans of Locke Lord, Allison Handy of Perkins Coie and Richie Leisner of Trenam Law discuss the SEC’s rule amendments simplifying and harmonizing the rules governing private offerings – and how to prepare to take advantage of them.

Bonus: If you attend the live version of this 60-minute program, CLE credit will be available! You just need to submit your state and license number and complete the prompts during the program.

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Liz Dunshee