Tag: SEC Division of Enforcement

Raiding the cookie jar—“part of the art of the close”?

In this Order, the SEC brought settled charges against Rollins, Inc., a termite and pest control company—think “Orkin”—and its former CFO for earnings management.  In essence, the SEC alleged that the company adjusted the amounts in several of its corporate reserves, without support or documentation, to bump up its EPS so that its EPS would meet analysts’ consensus EPS estimates for two quarters.  The company would otherwise have missed those consensus estimates by a penny in each quarter. The SEC charged the company with securities fraud under the Securities Act, financial reporting violations under the Exchange Act and failure to maintain adequate internal accounting controls and imposed a civil penalty of $8 million. The CFO was also charged with similar violations and ordered to pay a civil penalty of $100,000.  According to Gurbir Grewal, Director of Enforcement, “[t]his is the fourth action and the highest penalty to date against an issuer in connection with the Division of Enforcement’s highly successful and continuing EPS Initiative, which uses data analytics to uncover hard-to-detect accounting and disclosure violations by public companies….The SEC staff’s ever-increasing sophistication with data made today’s action possible and underscores that we will continue to pursue public companies that lack adequate accounting controls and engage in improper earnings management practices.”

Company charged for improper intra-company foreign exchange transactions

On Tuesday, the SEC announced settled charges against Baxter International Inc., its former Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer, for misconduct related to improper intra-company foreign exchange transactions that resulted in the misstatement of the company’s net income. From at least 1995 to 2019, the SEC alleged, Baxter converted foreign-currency-denominated transactions and assets and liabilities on its financial statements using its own “convention”—not in accordance with U.S. GAAP. Then, beginning around 2009, the SEC charged, Baxter leveraged the convention to devise a series of non-operating intra-company foreign exchange transactions “for the sole purpose of generating foreign exchange accounting gains or avoiding foreign exchange accounting losses.” In the order against Baxter, the SEC found that the company violated the negligence-based anti-fraud, public reporting, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the federal securities laws and imposed an $18 million penalty. In this order and this order, the SEC found that the company’s Treasurer “did not take any steps to investigate how Baxter’s treasury department generated consistent gains or whether the transactions that generated the gains were permissible,” and that the Assistant Treasurer, working with others at his direction, was “primarily responsible for executing the transactions.” The Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer were determined to have violated the negligence-based anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and to have caused Baxter’s public reporting and books and records violations.

SEC’s “shadow trading” case survives motion to dismiss

In August last year, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court charging Matthew Panuwat, a former employee of Medivation Inc., an oncology-focused biopharma, with insider trading in advance of Medivation’s announcement that it would be acquired by a big pharma company.  But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill insider trading case. Panuwat didn’t trade in shares of Medivation or shares of the acquiror, nor did he tip anyone about the transaction.  No, according to the SEC, he engaged in what has been referred to as “shadow trading”; he used the information about his employer’s acquisition to purchase call options on a separate biopharma company, Incyte Corporation, which the SEC claimed was comparable to Medivation.  According to the SEC, Panuwat made that purchase based on an assumption that the acquisition of Medivation at a healthy premium would probably boost the share price of Incyte. Incyte’s stock price increased after the sale of Medivation was announced.  The SEC charged that Panuwat committed fraud against Medivation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities, with scienter, in violation of Rule 10b-5; he had, the SEC charged, breached his “duty to refrain from using Medivation’s proprietary information for his own personal gain” and traded ahead of the announcement. The SEC sought an injunction and civil penalties. (See this PubCo post.) In November, Panuwat filed a motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), calling it “an unprecedented expansion” of the Exchange Act. Last week, the Court denied the motion.

SEC charges company and finance executives with raiding the cookie jar

Just in time for the holidays—cookie jars full of…revenue adjustments! In this complaint, the SEC charged American Renal Associates Holdings, Inc., a national provider of dialysis services, and three of its finance executives with securities fraud and other misconduct. According to the SEC, the alleged fraudulent scheme involved a “series of revenue adjustments to make it appear that ARA had beat, met, or come close to meeting various predetermined financial metrics, when in fact its financial performance was materially worse.” After receiving an inquiry from the SEC, ARA conducted an internal investigation that led the company to restate its financials, which, according to the SEC, showed that the company had overstated its net income by over 30% for 2017 and by more than 200% for the first three quarters of 2018.  The revenue adjustments in the cookie jar, the SEC charged, were one of the key ingredients used in this alleged effort to cook the company’s books.

Enforcement again brings charges for failure to disclose perks

Failure to disclose executive perks continues to be a flashing target for SEC Enforcement. Just last year, there were two actions against companies for disclosure failures regarding perks—Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. (see this PubCo post).  And earlier this year, Enforcement brought settled charges against Gulfport Energy Corporation and its former CEO, Michael G. Moore, for failure to disclose some of the perks provided to Moore (see this PubCo post). Now, the SEC has once again filed settled charges against a company,  ProPetro Holding Corp., and its co-founder and former CEO, Dale Redman, for failure to properly disclose executive perks—including, once again, personal use of aircraft at the company’s expense—as well as two stock pledges. While the topic is not new, the different types of blunders and slip-ups—which seem to be unique to each case—can be instructive.  In this case, the focus was—in addition to absence of a policy regarding personal travel reimbursement, inadequate internal controls around perks and failure to disclose paid personal travel expenses—an inadequate process for completion and review of D&O questionnaires.

SEC charges attorney rendering legal opinions with violations of Section 5

Attorneys who may think they can give short shrift to those pesky legal opinions to transfer agents might think twice after reading this complaint, SEC v. Frederick Bauman, filed on September 8, 2021, in the federal district court in Nevada.   As described in the SEC’s litigation release, the SEC charged Bauman “with playing a critical role as an attorney who facilitated the unregistered sale of millions of shares of securities by two groups engaged in securities fraud.” According to the SEC’s complaint, between 2016 and August 2019, Bauman issued at least a dozen legal opinions to transfer agents advising that certain shares of four public companies were unrestricted and freely tradeable and that the holders of the shares were not affiliates of the public company issuers. However, the SEC alleged, the shareholders were actually part of groups that controlled those issuers, which made them affiliates under the securities laws. In “each instance where Bauman’s opinion letters violated Section 5,” the SEC alleged, “he lacked a reasonable basis for representing that the shareholders were not affiliates.” The complaint charged that the sales by these control groups were unregistered and violated Section 5 of the Securities Act and that Bauman violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act.

SEC charges Kraft Heinz with improper expense management scheme

On Friday, the SEC announced settled charges against Kraft Heinz Company, its Chief Operating Officer and Chief Procurement Officer for “engaging in a long-running expense management scheme that resulted in the restatement of several years of financial reporting.” According to the SEC’s Order regarding the company and the COO, as well as the SEC’s complaint against the CPO, the company employed a number of expense management strategies that “misrepresented the true nature of transactions,” including recognizing unearned discounts from suppliers, maintaining false and misleading supplier contracts and engaging in other accounting misconduct, all of which resulted in accounting errors and misstatements. The misconduct, the SEC contended, was designed to allow the company to report sham cost savings consistent with the operational efficiencies it had touted would result from the 2015 merger of Kraft and Heinz, as well as to inflate EBITDA—a critical earnings measure for the market—and to achieve certain performance targets. And, once again, charges of failure to design and implement effective internal controls played a prominent role. After the SEC began its investigation, KHC restated its financials, reversing “$208 million in improperly-recognized cost savings arising out of nearly 300 transactions.” According to Anita B. Bandy, Associate Director of Enforcement, “Kraft and its former executives are charged with engaging in improper expense management practices that spanned many years and involved numerous misleading transactions, millions in bogus cost savings, and a pervasive breakdown in accounting controls. The violations harmed investors who ultimately bore the costs and burdens of a restatement and delayed financial reporting….Kraft and its former executives are being held accountable for placing the pursuit of cost savings above compliance with the law.” KHC agreed to pay a civil penalty of $62 million. Interestingly, this case comes on the heels of an earnings management case brought by the SEC against Healthcare Services Group, Inc. for alleged failures to properly accrue and disclose litigation loss contingencies. 

SEC charges healthcare services company engaged in earnings management

Yesterday, the SEC announced settled charges against Healthcare Services Group, Inc., a provider of housekeeping and other services to healthcare facilities, its CFO and its controller, for alleged failures to properly accrue and disclose litigation loss contingencies—accounting and disclosure violations that “enabled the company to report inflated quarterly [EPS] that met research analysts’ consensus estimates for multiple quarters.”  This action is the result of SEC Enforcement’s “EPS Initiative, which uses risk-based data analytics to uncover potential accounting and disclosure violations caused by, among other things, earnings management practices.” Gurbir Grewal, the new Director of Enforcement, warned that the SEC will continue to leverage its “in-house data analytic capabilities to identify improper accounting and disclosure practices that mask volatility in financial performance, and continue to hold public companies and their executives accountable for their violations.” The company paid $6 million to settle the action. The SEC Order makes the matter of accruing for loss contingencies sound simple and straightforward, implying that the company’s behavior involved “big bath” accounting and other earnings management practices, and that may well be the case in this instance.  However, in many cases, deciding whether, when and what to disclose or accrue for a loss contingency is not so clear cut and can often be a challenging exercise.

Is this insider trading?

On Tuesday, the SEC announced that it had filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court charging a former employee of Medivation Inc., an oncology-focused biopharma, with insider trading in advance of Medivation’s announcement that it would be acquired by a big pharma company.  But it’s not what you might think.  The employee didn’t trade in shares of Medivation or shares of the acquiror, nor did he tip anyone about the transaction.  No, according to the SEC, he used the information about his employer’s acquisition to purchase call options on a separate biopharma company, Incyte Corporation, which the SEC claims was comparable to Medivation.  According to the SEC, the employee made that purchase based on an assumption that the acquisition of Medivation at a healthy premium would probably boost the share price of Incyte. Incyte’s stock price increased after the sale of Medivation was announced.  The SEC charged that the employee breached his “duty to refrain from using Medivation’s proprietary information for his own personal gain” and traded ahead of the announcement, in violation of Rule 10b-5.  Will the SEC succeed or is the factual basis of the charge just too attenuated?

SEC charges another company for misleading cybersecurity disclosure

It’s déjà vu all over again! On Monday, the SEC announced settled charges against Pearson plc, an NYSE-listed, educational publishing and services company based in London, for failure to disclose a cybersecurity breach. You might recall that just a few months ago, the SEC announced settled charges against another company for failure to timely disclose a cybersecurity vulnerability that led to a leak of data, with disclosure ultimately spurred by imminent media reports.  Is there a trend here? In this instance, it wasn’t just a vulnerability—there was an actual known breach and exfiltration of private data.  Nevertheless, Pearson decided not to disclose it and framed its cybersecurity risk factor disclosure as purely hypothetical.  The SEC viewed that disclosure as misleading and imposed a civil penalty on Pearson of $1 million.  The case serves as yet another reminder of the dangers of risk disclosures presented as hypothetical when those risks have actually come to fruition—a presentation that has now repeatedly drawn scrutiny in the context of cybersecurity disclosure.