SEC enforcement actions

2023’s excitement for generative artificial intelligence (AI) prompted the SEC to respond on multiple fronts – stump speeches, rulemaking, new exam priorities and sweeps and previewing potential enforcement actions. SEC Chair Gary Gensler raised concerns regarding potential conflicts and investor harm resulting from the proliferation of AI and warned that an AI-caused financial crisis is nearly unavoidable absent regulation. The SEC adopted a number of initiatives in 2023 to respond to these perceived risks. 

Go to any private equity event in the last 12 months, and “energy transition” will have been discussed, meaning the shift in energy production away from fossil‑based systems to low or zero carbon ones. As fund managers continue to raise funds focused on investments in this sector, we see no reason for this trend to change in 2023.

The ever-increasing web of ESG regulation is of course highly relevant for such funds and their investments, but the sector-relevant risks are much wider. There are four risks of which fund managers need to be aware.

The SEC’s Enforcement Division is conducting a sweep investigation of large investment advisers regarding their employees’ use of “off-channel” communications.  The sweep, which has been widely reported in the press, focuses on text messages from personal phones, personal email, WhatsApp and other platforms not typically captured or monitored by advisers.  The sweep is causing considerable industry concern, following the SEC’s announcement of settlements against a number of large broker-dealers for use of off-channel communications, that resulted in $1.235 billion of cumulative penalties. 

Last month, we predicted that a renewed focus by the SEC on insider trading, MNPI and related internal controls would be one of the Top Ten Regulatory and Litigation Risks for Private Funds in 2022. Last week, the SEC’s Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) issued a timely risk alert relating to Investment Adviser Material Non-Public Information (MNPI) Compliance Issues.

The SEC’s EXAMS risk alert specifically highlighted a handful of common deficiencies noted under Section 204A of the Advisers Act and Rule 204A-1 under the Advisers Act (the “Code of Ethics Rule”).

The SEC’s push to regulate the next generation of blockchain-based applications will likely give rise to disputes and enforcement actions, particularly in the developing decentralized finance (DeFi) space. Although DeFi has the potential to enhance or replace traditional financial products by speeding execution and reducing transaction costs using blockchain technology, the SEC presumes that actors in this space are generally offering “securities” subject to its jurisdiction.  

As one of the first of an expected series of potential enforcement actions, the SEC has brought an enforcement action against a SPAC and its major participants, highlighting enhanced regulatory scrutiny of SPACs and underscoring the importance of following appropriate diligence and other practices in the de-SPAC process. Given the

Though SEC scrutiny of performance results in fund marketing materials is nothing new, a recent settlement order suggests that the Commission continues to closely examine representations in marketing materials with respect to past investment performance.

Old Ironsides Energy, LLC, a Boston-based registered investment adviser, agreed to pay a $1 million penalty to settle SEC charges alleging a material misstatement in its fund marketing materials. In particular, the adviser’s marketing materials allegedly “identified a large, legacy investment with strong, positive returns as an early stage direct drilling investment” (“DDI”) over which the adviser “had direct management in partnership with project operators, when it was actually an investment in a private fund advised by a third party.”

On July 3, 2019, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a “Statement Regarding Offers of Settlement” (the “Statement”), announcing important changes to how the SEC will consider future requests for waivers from disqualifications in settlements.  The Statement may have been prompted by the Bad Actor Disqualification Act of 2019 recently proposed by Representative Maxine Waters.  Regardless of the impetus, the Statement should provide settling parties with greater certainty regarding the waiver process.  Importantly, the new policy effectively allows a settling party to condition its offer of settlement on whether the SEC grants a requested waiver – if the waiver is not granted, the respondent now is able to retract its offer of settlement.