The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission saw a record number of enforcement actions this past fiscal year, a sign the commission is looking beyond headline-grabbing cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars, according to one attorney.
The uptick represents a three-year trend of increasing action taken by the SEC against individuals and entities. There were 868 enforcement actions this fiscal year compared with 807 in 2015 and 755 in 2014. The agency obtained just over $4 billion in disgorgement this fiscal year, down from $4.19 billion last year and $4.16 billion in 2014.
However, this year saw a record high of $57 million total awarded for whistleblowers, according to the agency,
“By every measure the enforcement program continues to be a resounding success holding executives, companies and market participants accountable for their illegal actions,” SEC Chair Mary Jo White said in a statement Tuesday. “Over the last three years, we have changed the way we do business on the enforcement front by using new data analytics to uncover fraud, enhancing our ability to litigate tough cases, and expanding the playbook bringing novel and significant actions to better protect investors and our markets.”
Jennifer Achilles, a partner at Reed Smith’s global regulatory enforcement group in the New York, said lawyers in the past were able to advise clients about the risk of being prosecuted for something small. Those risks increased when White took over the SEC in 2013.
“It was generally understood they would go after headline-grabbing cases like insider trading or Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases,” she said.
“I think it’s generally accepted that it’s not necessarily that the SEC has increased its toughness or productivity per se, but more that she’s instituted a policy that there’s no violation or potential violation that’s too small to go after,” Achilles added.
The SEC still saw its share of high-profile cases last fiscal year, including insider trading charges filed against hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman.
The commission filed a complaint against Cooperman, 73, and Omega Advisors in Philadelphia federal court alleging that the Wall Street veteran purchased securities in Atlas Pipeline Partners in advance of the sale of its natural gas processing facility, earning illicit profits.
Other examples include a $415 million enforcement action against Merrill Lynch for the misuse of customer money, and a $267 million enforcement action against JPMorgan for failing to disclose conflicts of interest.
Achilles compared the SEC strategy to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s approach to cracking down on crime by prosecuting turnstile jumpers and graffiti artists to deter bigger crimes.
“I think it would be a good thing if you could actually demonstrate that securities violations were on the decline, and I don’t think that this is a reliable indicator of that,” Achilles said of the SEC report.
Contact P.J. D’Annunzio at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @PJDannunzioTLI.