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Amicus Brief Highlights the Massive Reach and Unintended Consequences of SEC Rule 206(4)-5

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We have been following for some time the legal challenge brought by various political parties to the SEC’s pay-to-play Rule 206(4)-5.  That lawsuit, you will recall, challenges both the constitutionality and administrative jurisdiction of the SEC’s efforts to regulate campaign activity (“protected speech” by another name?) by investment advisors.  Litigation continues to press forward as the parties are set to square off again before the Court of Appeals on March 23. The latest briefing is here and our take on the appellate issues is set forth here in case you were getting popcorn and missed the action.

Now, the ongoing litigation has revealed a new plot line that this blog has written about several times: pay-to-play rules in general (and Rule 206(4)-5 specifically) have a really annoying way of converting well-intentioned policy aspirations into a morass of unintended compliance uncertainty and costs for the regulated community.  Simply stated, it is very easy to say, “Gee, it would be nice for my regulating agency to give the public confidence that government largesse isn’t handed out on the basis of who writes the biggest campaign checks.”  It is very, very hard for the appropriate regulating authority to write restrictions into law that don’t violate constitutional principles of free speech, become unconstitutionally overbroad, or otherwise create a compliance nightmare for the 99.98% of the private sector, who simply want to go about the process of doing business with the government without unknowingly finding themselves subjected to massive liability.

That tension has manifested in the thoughtful – and, quite frankly, scary – amicus brief filed by the Center for Competitive Politics on behalf of the Financial Services Institute.  In that brief, FSI notes that it is a network of independent financial advisors which are each independent broker-dealers operating entirely separately from each other as independent contractors.  Because some of these advisors are registered to provide services to pension funds and other government retirement plans, FSI member firms are subject to Rule 206(4)-5.  Makes sense, right?  Sure, until one contemplates the fact that 206(4)-5 as crafted treats all of these Mom-and-Pop advisers who happen to be performing as independent contractors under the same FSI logo are inter-related “covered associates” for pay-to-play purposes.  They are all responsible for each other’s campaign activity because the SEC chooses to treat “independent contractors” as “employees” for pay-to-play enforcement purposes (Black’s Law Dictionary having no jurisdiction over the Wisdom of the Sovereign).

Think about that.  Part-time FSI advisor Mabel in Topeka can make a political contribution that prevents Reggie in Trenton from being able to get paid under his investment advisory services contract for two years even though the two have never met (or, possibly, Reggie really pissed Mabel off with something he said at the FSI Christmas gathering in Orlando)!  What can FSI do other than what every rational, responsible, compliance-based organization would do?  It simply bans all contribution activity by all agents; regardless of the fact that the contributing agent has no intentions of ever doing business with the recipient politician.  (Amicus Brief, p. 6).

That can’t be the answer mandated by the Constitution.  It is, however, the logical response to the current morass of unintended compliance uncertainty suffered by the FSIs of the world.