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SEC Starts Hitting the Private Sector Hard for Pay-to-Play Violations

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Stay AlertFor the first time ever, the SEC has brought a pay-to-play case against an investment advisor for making political contributions. Previously, and with the requisite lack of subtlety and fanfare you have come to expect from this blog, we highlighted the SEC’s massive consent judgment against Goldman Sachs over a series of “in kind” contributions by one of its bankers. What makes this case equally noteworthy in the wake of the Goldman precedent is not only the fact that the SEC is signaling that its enforcement efforts will not be tempered either by a lack of intent to influence and investment decisions, but that such efforts will also not be deterred even by a lack of opportunity to influence those decisions.

The investment community needs to take note and heed these warnings immediately. TL Ventures gives us all 285,000 reasons to do so.

As spelled out in greater detail in a recent, articulate, insightful, and well-crafted law firm client alert, in April 2011, a “covered associate” of TL Ventures made contributions to the campaign of a candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia and the Governor of Pennsylvania. The Mayor of Philadelphia appoints three of the nine members of the Philadelphia Retirement Board and the Governor of Pennsylvania appoints six of the eleven members of the board of the Pennsylvania SERS. The SEC charged TL Ventures with pay-to-play violations under Rule 206(4)-5 of the Advisers Act because the contributions triggered the two-year “time out” from receiving advisory fees from the Philadelphia Retirement Board and SERS. As was the case with Goldman, TL Ventures agreed to settle the matter without admitting or denying the allegations, disgorging its fees of over $250,000, and paying a penalty of $35,000.

For the uninitiated, Rule 206(4)-5 generally prohibits investment advisors from providing advisory services for compensation to a government entity for two years after the adviser or certain of its executives or employees make political contributions above specified thresholds to an elected official or candidate for political office if the office is “directly or indirectly responsible for, or can influence that government entity’s selection of the adviser.”

It is a significant question whether the facts alleged in this matter represent the type of case that was envisioned when the pay-to-play rules were adopted, and whether this is the type of case that combats what the SEC described as a significant problem of influence in the management of public funds. Absent from the SEC’s allegations was any assertion that TL Ventures or the covered associate at issue attempted to influence an investment decision of either the Philadelphia Board or SERS. Indeed, the SEC went out of its way in its consent order to declare that “Rule 206(4)-5 does not require a showing of quid pro quo or actual intent to influence an elected official or candidate.”

Of particular relevance here, TL Ventures did not appear even to have an opportunity to influence an investment decision. The SEC alleged that both SERS and the Philadelphia Board were investors in the funds prior to the political contribution and that the funds were in wind down mode, and that both SERS and the Philadelphia Board were already committed to TL Venture funds until the funds officially wound down. Additionally, there was no allegation that TL Ventures marketed any additional funds for investments during the two-year period after the covered associate at issue made the prohibited political contributions. Thus, the political donations in question could not have had any effect on any investment decision because there was simply no investment decision to be made.

In addition to being a bit scary and a large neon flashing compliance alert for the regulated community, one has to wonder whether the SEC’s enforcement action against TL Ventures and its pay-to-play rules are constitutional under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S.__(2013).  Readers of this blog will recall that in McCutcheon, the Supreme Court found that aggregate political contribution limits violated the First Amendment because the  regulation of political speech must be limited to targeting instances of “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. No such concern was found by the Court in the aggregate campaign contribution limit context. Coincidentally, the existence or appearance of quid pro quo corruption is precisely the standard the SEC has gone out of its way to assert is NOT required to allege a Rule 206(4)-5 violation. In turn, one has to wonder how the Roberts Court would view the SEC’s attempted application of a strict liability standard for Rule 206(4)-5 violations that involve absolutely no opportunity to influence an actual investment decision.