In an enforcement sweep, SEC charges multiple companies and insiders with untimely reporting under Sections 16 and 13(d)
Yesterday, the SEC announced a sweep enforcement action against several insiders and companies for failing to file Forms 4 (Section 16(a) short-swing trading reports) and Schedules 13D and G (reports by beneficial owners of more than 5%) on a timely basis. Using data analytics, the SEC staff identified the insiders charged as “repeatedly filing these reports late,” some delayed “by weeks, months, or even years.” In some cases, the companies failed to make filings on behalf of insiders after having volunteered to do so, and then failed to report the delinquencies in their own filings, as required by Reg S-K Item 405. Those charged were assessed penalties ranging from $66,000 to $200,000. In commenting on these cases, SEC Director of Enforcement Gurbir Grewal said that “[t]imely disclosure of insider transactions is critically important to both investors and the fair, orderly and efficient operation of our securities markets. According to today’s orders, the insiders and companies charged in these matters in the aggregate deprived investors of timely information about over $90 million in transactions….These enforcement actions also make clear that we will not hesitate to charge companies for causing their insiders’ disclosure violations where the companies took on the responsibility for making relevant filings for their insiders, and then acted negligently.” According to the Deputy Enforcement Director, “[s]everal years ago, we undertook a similar initiative to root out repeated late filers….Today’s enforcement action should serve to remind SEC filers that reporting obligations under the securities laws are not optional, and there are consequences for failing to file required forms in a timely manner.” Apparently, the SEC wants to send a message that late filings are not ok…and really late filing are really not ok. It’s also clear that the SEC views companies that do volunteer to make filings on behalf of their insiders—a common practice—as potentially contributing to their filing failures and will hold the companies responsible if the insiders fail to timely file. Message sent, message received?
One area where SEC Enforcement appears to have focused its attention recently is whistleblower protections. In this Order against CBRE, Inc., the SEC brought settled charges against the commercial real estate services and investment firm for using an employee release form that the SEC alleged violated Exchange Act Rule 21F-17, the SEC’s whistleblower protection rule. The purpose of the whistleblower provisions in the Exchange Act, added in 2010 as part of Dodd-Frank, was to “encourage whistleblowers to report possible securities law violations by providing, among other things, financial incentives and confidentiality protections.” To prevent obstruction of that reporting, the SEC adopted Rule 21F-17, which provides that “[n]o person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement…with respect to such communications.” The SEC’s order found that, “by conditioning separation pay on employees’ signing the release, CBRE took action to impede potential whistleblowers from reporting complaints to the Commission.” According to an SEC Regional Director, it “is critical that employees are able to communicate with SEC staff about potential violations of the federal securities laws without compromising their financial interests or the confidentiality protections of the SEC’s whistleblower program….We commend CBRE for its swift and far-reaching remediation and for its high level of cooperation with our staff, which is reflected in the terms of the resolution.” Is it time to take another look at your employee separation agreements and release forms?
In this Order, the SEC brought settled charges against Fluor Corporation, a global engineering, procurement and construction company listed on the NYSE, in connection with alleged improper accounting on two large-scale, fixed-price construction projects. Five current and former Fluor officers and employees were also charged. (The press release includes links to the orders for the five individuals.) Fixed-price contracts mean that cost overruns are the contractor’s problem, not the customer’s, and Fluor’s bids on the two projects were based on “overly optimistic cost and timing estimates.” When Fluor experienced cost overruns, the SEC alleged, Fluor’s internal accounting controls failed, with the result that Fluor used improper accounting for these projects that did not comply with the percentage-of-completion accounting method under GAAP, leading Fluor to materially overstate its net earnings for several annual and quarterly periods. A restatement ultimately followed. Fluor agreed to pay a civil penalty of $14.5 million and the officers to pay civil penalties between $15,000 and $25,000. According to the Associate Director in the Division of Enforcement, “[d]ependable estimates and the internal accounting controls that facilitate them are the backbone of percentage of completion accounting and are critical to the accuracy of the financial statements that investors rely on….We will continue to hold companies and individuals accountable for serious controls failures and resulting recordkeeping and reporting violations.”
Earlier this week, the SEC announced settled enforcement actions against five companies for deficient disclosure in Forms 12b-25 that they filed regarding late reports. Why? On the heels of filing those Forms 12b-25, the companies announced financial restatements or corrections that were not even alluded to in those late notification filings. Over two years ago, the SEC charged eight companies for similar violations detected through the use of data analytics in an initiative aimed at Form 12b-25 filings that were soon followed by announcements of financial restatements or corrections. (See this PubCo post.) Apparently, the SEC believes that companies are still flubbing this one and does not seem to consider these errors to be just harmless foot faults. In connection with the 2021 enforcement actions, the Associate Director of Enforcement hit on a central problem from the SEC’s perspective with deficiencies of this type: “In these cases, due to the companies’ failure to include required disclosure in their Form 12b-25, investors relying on the deficient Forms NT were kept in the dark regarding the unreliability of the company’s financial reporting or anticipated material changes in operating results.” These charges should serve as a reminder that completing the late notification is not, to borrow a phrase, a trivial pursuit and could necessitate substantial time and attention to provide the narrative and quantitative data that, depending on the circumstances, could be required.
Last month, Cornerstone Research told us that accounting and auditing enforcement activity by the SEC in FY 2022 increased by 55% over the prior fiscal year to 68 enforcement actions, 25 of which alleged improper revenue recognition. Among the actions involving accounting restatements, 63% involved allegations regarding revenue recognition and internal control over financial reporting. We also saw a steep increase in actions against individuals, reportedly reflecting the emphasis of SEC Chair Gary Gensler on imposing individual accountability. (See this PubCo post.) With this new SEC Order charging USA Technologies, Inc., now known as …er… Cantaloupe, Inc.—clearly someone’s favorite fruit—with improper revenue recognition practices and ICFR violations, the SEC continues that trend. For their roles participating in these improper activities, the SEC also brought actions against USAT’s former VP of Sales and Marketing and its former Chief Services Officer.
In this report from Cornerstone Research, SEC Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Activity—Year in Review: FY 2022, Cornerstone tells us that accounting and auditing enforcement activity by the SEC increased sharply in FY 2022, although surprisingly, the aggregate amount of monetary settlements declined sharply. Perhaps most interesting is the steep increase in actions against individuals, reportedly reflecting the emphasis of SEC Chair Gary Gensler on imposing individual accountability and perhaps, by extension, spurring action by executives to prevent misconduct at their companies. The report found that over “half of all actions involved individual respondents only, a sharp increase from the FY 2017–FY 2021 average of 37%. Following Chair Gary Gensler’s swearing-in [in April 2021] through the end of FY 2022, approximately 49% of actions were initiated against individual respondents only.” According to one of the co-authors of the report, “[u]nder Chair Gensler’s leadership, the SEC has identified ‘holding individuals accountable’ as a ‘key priority area’ in its enforcement program”…. So, it is not a surprise that the percentage of actions initiated against individual respondents in FY 2022 was notably higher than those actions initiated during Jay Clayton’s administration.”
Government officials, especially those in SEC Enforcement, have been making noise about the potential for insider trading abuse of Rule 10b5-1 plans since at least 2007, when then-SEC Enforcement Chief Linda Thomsen expressed concern that “executives are taking advantage of a legal safe harbor to sell their stock and profit before their companies report bad news….[A]cademic studies suggest that the rule may be a cover for improper activity, Thomsen said. ‘We’re looking at this hard….If executives are in fact trading on inside information and using a plan for cover, they should expect the ‘safe harbor’ to provide no defense.’” (See this Cooley News Brief.) Now, in 2023, DOJ has unsealed an indictment against Terren Peizer, the executive chair of Ontrak, Inc., representing the first time, according to the press release, that DOJ has brought “criminal insider trading charges based exclusively on an executive’s use of 10b5-1 trading plans.” (Note, however, that the SEC did bring a case last year against executives of Cheetah Mobile related to sales under a purported 10b5-1 trading plan entered into while in possession of material nonpublic information. See this PubCo post.) DOJ charged that Peizer entered into a fraudulent scheme using 10b5-1 plans and engaged in insider trading, both of which charges carry stiff criminal penalties. DOJ said that the FBI is continuing to investigate this case. Not to be completely outdone—although it’s hard not to be outdone by the threat of serious jail time—the SEC has also filed a civil complaint against Peizer, charging that he engaged in insider trading in Ontrak shares using 10b5-1 plans as part of a scheme to evade insider trading prohibitions: when Peizer entered into the plans, the SEC alleged, he was aware of material nonpublic information about the company. As you probably know, to be effective in insulating an insider from potential insider trading liability, the 10b5-1 plan must be established when the insider is acting in good faith and not aware of MNPI. Creating the plan once the insider has learned of MNPI, as alleged in this case, would seem to defeat the whole purpose of the rule—to ensure an even playing field for all investors. The SEC alleged that Peizer sold more than $20 million of Ontrak stock, avoiding more than $12.7 million in losses. At the end of last year, Bloomberg reported that the SEC and DOJ were using data analytics “in a sweeping examination of preplanned equity sales by C-suite officials.” (See this PubCo post.) That effort appears to have paid off in this case; DOJ advises that this investigation was “part of a data-driven initiative led by the Fraud Section to identify executive abuses of 10b5-1 trading plans,” suggesting perhaps that this may not be the last prosecution we will see for abuse of 10b5-1 plans.
Here’s another earnings management case from SEC Enforcement, this time against Roadrunner Transportation Systems, Inc., a shipping and logistics company formerly traded on the NYSE, involving a veritable pu pu platter of alleged financial manipulations. As charged in the SEC’s Order, from July 2013 through January 2017, the company engaged in an “accounting fraud scheme by manipulating its financial reports to hit prior earnings guidance and analyst projections.” Among other things, Roadrunner was alleged to have improperly deferred and stretched out expenses over multiple quarters to minimize their impact on earnings, failed to write down worthless assets and uncollectable receivables, and manipulated earnout liabilities related to its numerous acquisitions. The company agreed to pay disgorgement of just over $7 million, with prejudgment interest of approximately $2.5 million—except that the company paid nothing additional: the penalties were deemed satisfied by the settlement payment the company made in connection with prior private securities litigation.
Last week, the SEC announced settled charges against Gentex Corporation, a manufacturer of digital vision, connected car, dimmable glass and fire protection products, and its former Chief Accounting Officer and current CFO, Kevin Nash, related to financial reporting, books-and-records and internal accounting controls violations. Allegedly, these violations were the consequence of deficiencies in the company’s accounting practices for its bonus programs, which practices allowed the company to manage its earnings by adjusting its accruals for bonuses to ensure that publicly reported EPS was in line with consensus EPS estimates—without the required accounting analysis or adequate supporting documentation. According to the SEC, had the company not reduced the accrual for bonuses, it “would have missed consensus EPS estimates by one penny.” Gentex was ordered to pay a civil money penalty of $4 million and Nash to pay $75,000. These charges represent yet another case resulting from SEC Enforcement’s “Earnings-Per-Share Initiative,” which applies risk-based data analytics to detect potential violations from earnings management, among other things.