This Week In Securities Litigation (April 10, 2009)
This week, the SEC proposed new rules to restrict short selling and the Division of Investment Management began a review of rules applicable to money market funds in the wake of Treasury Secretary Geithner’s recent congressional testimony calling for stronger regulation in the fund industry. The New York Attorney General filed suit against a Madoff feeder fund, offering a window into the operations of largest Ponzi scheme in history. SEC enforcement obtained two more settlements in the long running Brocade option backdating case and initiated or concluded six investment fraud cases. DOJ filed criminal charges based on an accounting fraud against former executives of an Arizona company, following an earlier SEC enforcement action and brought new FCPA actions as the UK overhauled its version of that statute.
Short selling: On Tuesday, the SEC voted to seek public comment on proposed short sale and circuit breaker rules as discussed here. The proposal has two variations. One is a market-wide permanent approach, while the other is a security-specific temporary approach.
The market-wide approach has two variations. One, called the proposed modified uptick rule, is a market wide short sale price test based on the national best bid. The other, a proposed uptick rule, would be a market-wide short sale price test based on the last sale price or tick.
The security-specific, temporary approach has three variations: 1) a circuit breaker halt rule which would ban short selling in a particular security for the day following a severe price decline; 2) one which is a variation of a proposed circuit breaker uptick rule that would impose a short sale price test based on the national best bid in a particular security for the remainder of the day following a severe price decline in that security; or 3) a second variation of the proposed circuit breaker uptick rule which would impose a short sale price test based on the last sale price in a particular security for the remainder of he day following a severe price decline.
The Fund Industry: In a recent address at PLI’s Investment Management Institute Andrew Donohue, the Director of the SEC’s Division of Investment Management, raised two key points regarding future regulation of the fund industry as discussed here. In the first, he described as “worrisome” the increasing use of leverage by some funds and called for voluntary restrains. In the second, he announced an overhaul of regulations regarding money market funds. The second point is consistent with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s recent congressional testimony in which he called for the SEC to develop strong requirements for money market funds to reduce the risk of rapid withdrawals as part of the Administration’s plan for overhauling financial regulation. Testimony of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, House Financial Services Committee.
The Madoff scandal
In The People of the State of New York v. Merkin, S.Ct. NY, Filed April 6, 2009, the New York Attorney General brought against J. Ezra Merkin and Gabriel Capital Corporation as discussed here. According to the complaint, Mr. Merkin and his investment funds were “feeder funds” which provided the Madoff scheme with millions of dollars of investor money. Ezra Merkin apparently used his position as a “pillar of the New York philanthropic community” to raise money for his funds which he in turn funneled to Mr. Madoff. This happened despite some instances where investors told Mr. Merkin they did not want their money invested with Mr. Madoff. Although Mr. Merkin represented to investors that he had an investment strategy which he implemented, in fact he did little work other than routine paper shuffling while collecting significant investment management fees.
Overall Mr. Merkin lost approximately $2.4 billion, according to the complaint. During the period Mr. Merkin ignored warnings and other red flags indicating that the Madoff fund might be a fraud while earning more than $470 million in management and incentive fees.
Option backdating: Another chapter in the Brocade Communications option backdating saga, discussed here, closed this week as the court entered final judgments against Antonio Canova, a CPA and former CFO and V.P. of Finance and Stephanie Jensen, former V.P. for Human Resources. The final judgment as to Mr. Canova enjoined him from future violations of Securities Act Section 17(a)(2) & (3) as well as the books and records provisions of the Exchange Act. Mr. Canova also agreed to pay a civil penalty of $120,000 and disgorgement and prejudgment interest of about $249.000. The settlement did not indicate that Mr. Canova agreed to any sanction under Rule 102(e). This is one of the few option backdating settlements involving Section 17(a)(2) &(3). SEC v. Reyes, Case No. 3:06-cv-04435 (N.D. Ca. Filed July 20, 2006).
Ms. Jensen was enjoined from future violations of the antifraud and reporting provision of the Exchange Act. She also agreed to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest totaling $44,416.
Investment frauds: The Commission also brought or concluded six more actions based on alleged investment frauds or Ponzi schemes. Those actions are:
SEC v. Sun Empire LLC, Case No. 09-399 (C.D. CA. Filed April 3, 2009) which alleges that Dililah Proctor, Shauntel McCoy and their entities raised at least $7 million from investors based on claims that the money would be invested in a high yield fund when in fact must of it was diverted to the personal use of the defendants or to other funds. The SEC obtained a freeze order.
SEC v. Oversea Chinese Fund Ltd. Partnership, Civil Action No. 3-09CV01614-B (N.D. Tex. Filed April 6, 2009). This action claimed defendants Oversea Chinese Fund, a hedge fund based in Toronto, and Wizhen Tang, a self-described Chinese Warren Buffet, orchestrated a fraudulent scheme in which between $50 and $75 million was raised from over 200 investors. Investors were told that the fund was in fact a Ponzi scheme and that it posted false profits, using money from new investors to pay others. Mr. Tang apparently targeted members of the Chinese-American community and solicited U.S. investors to his fund. The SEC obtained a freeze order.
SEC v. Market Street Advisors, Civil Action No. 09-CV-00786 (D.Colo. Filed April 7, 2009). This action was brought against Shawn Merriman and his firm, Market Street Advisors. It alleges that he raised from $17 to $20 million form at least 38 investors. The investment fund was in fact a Ponzi scheme. The Commission has requested emergency relief.
SEC v. Lydia Capital, LLC, Case No. 07-CV-10712 (D. Mass. Filed April 8, 2009). This action, originally filed in April 2007 against Glenn Manterfield and his related entities and discussed here, alleged that defendant defrauded 60 investors out of over $34 million. After obtaining an initial freeze order in this action the Commission also instituted an action in the UK against Mr. Manterfield and obtained a second freeze order over assets in that country. This week the court entered a Final Judgment enjoining Mr. Manterfield from future violations of the antifraud and reporting provisions of the federal securities laws and directing him to pay over $2.3 million in disgorgement plus prejudgment interest. The court also imposed a civil penalty of $130,000.
SEC v. Copeland, Civil Action No. 1:09-cv-0943 (N.D. Ga. April 9, 2009) is an action against an attorney who allegedly ran a Ponzi scheme. The complaint claims that over a period from at least 2004 through January 2009 Mr. Copeland raised about $35 million from over 140 investors by promising returns of 15-18%. The returns were to come from transactions in which the funds were lent in connection with private mortgage lending transactions. In reality, the claims were false — defendant Copeland took much of the investor money for himself, diverting it to his law office bank accounts.
DOJ brought criminal charges for conspiracy, securities fraud, mail fraud and making false filings with the SEC against Martin Fraser, the former president and COO, and Don Watson, the former CFO of Arizona based CSK Auto Corp. The thirty-one count indictment alleges that the two defendants engaged in a scheme from 2001 to 2006 to misstate CSK’s income primarily by failing to write of millions of dollars in uncollectible receivables. As a result the company misstated its income for the fiscal years 2002, 2003 and 2004 by approximately $10 million, $24 million and $19 million respectively. The SEC previously filed a related enforcement action discussed here.
In U.S. v. Latin Node, Inc., Case No. 1:09-cr-20239 (S.D.Fla. Filed March 23, 2009), Latin Node Inc, a privately held Florida corporation, pled guilty a one count information alleging violations of the FCPA anti-bribery provisions in connection with improper payments in Honduras and Yemen.
According to the court documents, Latin Node provides wholesale telecommunications services around the world. From March 2004 to June 2007, it paid or caused to be paid over $1 million to third parties knowing that some or all of that amount would be passed as bribes to officials of Hondutel, the Honduran state owned telecommunications company. In return Latin Node obtained an interconnection agreement and reduced rates. Each payment was approved by a senior company official.
The company also admitted that from about July 2005 to April 2006, it made 17 payments totaling over $1.1 million either directly to Yemeni officials or third parties in exchange for favorable interconnection rates in that country.
As part of the plea agreement Latin Node agreed to pay a $2 million fine during a three year period. The Department acknowledged that the parent cooperated by immediately disclosing the conduct after its discovery, conducting an internal investigation, sharing the factual results of that inquiry with the government and by terminating senior Latin Node management involved with the violations.
In another case, six former executives of an Orange County California valve company were charged with FCPA violations. The executives are: Stuart Carson, former CEO of the company; Hong Carson, former director of sales for China and Taiwan; Paul Cosgrove, former director of worldwide sales; David Edmonds, former V.P. of worldwide customer service; Flavio Ricotti, former V.P. and head of sales for Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and Han Yong Kim, former president of the company’s Korean office. Each was charged with violations of the FCPA and the Travel Act.
The indictment alleges that from 2003 to 2007 the defendants caused the company to make about 236 corrupt payments in more than 30 countries which yielded about $46.5 million in sales for the company. It also alleges that about $4.9 million in bribes was paid to officials of foreign state owned companies in violation of the FCPA and that about $1.95 in bribes was paid in violation of the Travel Act to officers and employees at sate owned entities.
Previously Mario Covino, former director of worldwide factory sales pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA as discussed here. Earlier this year Richard Morlok, former finance director of the company, pled guilty to once count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA.
United Kingdom: The UK has published a new draft anti-bribery bill. Under the proposed legislation, it will be a criminal offense to give, promise or offer a bribe and to request, agree to receive, or accept a bribe either at home or abroad. The draft also increases the maximum penalty for bribery from seven to ten year in prison. The legislation contains a negligent failure to prevent briber provision and lifts the Parliamentary Privilege to ensure that evidence from proceedings in Parliament can be considered.