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The SEC Has Been Busy With Pay-to-Play Compliance and Expects You To Be As Well

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has given notice that it intends to take a very active role with respect to pay-to-play issues in the securities markets and has put the regulated community on notice that it expects private corporate compliance training to be well under way as well.

As we have recently reported, the SEC has announced its intentions to take a significantly more aggressive regulatory posture with regard to the confluence of campaign contributions and public investing. Just last week, the House Financial Services Committee saw to it that the SEC has the tools for the job when it voted to double the SEC’s budget and awarded the Commission significantly greater regulatory powers.

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) has also gotten into the act by recently announcing plans to file a rule change with the SEC to revise Rule G-37 to prohibit dealers from engaging in municipal securities business with issuers for two years if they make certain contributions to the political campaigns of officials of issuers. The proposed revision to Rule G-37 would require municipal securities dealers, their muni professionals, and political action committees to disclose the political contributions they make to bond ballot election campaigns.

Meanwhile, in a case which should get the attention of compliance officers everywhere, the SEC has recently notified Southwest Securities Inc. that it plans to recommend “administrative and cease-and-desist proceedings” against the company based, in part, on the company’s failure to conduct compliance training for its financial services staff. In that case, the SEC initiated the action as a result of the company’s alleged use of political donations to win municipal bank work. Southwest’s (now former) employee at the center of the allegations maintained that he only unintentionally exceeded the MSRB cap of $250 donation per election and that the SEC was “more concerned about Southwest Securities and their lack of compliance training of their bankers.” According to FINRA records, Southwest said the employee had failed to report political contributions as required by MSRB and the employee, in turn, faulted the company for failing to adequately inform him of the MSRB rules.

In another, very significant action, the SEC announced last week that banking powerhouse JPMorgan has entered into a multi-million dollar settlement with the agency over allegations that company employees made unlawful payments to friends of county officials. Under the settlement JPMorgan agreed to cancel interest-rate swap contracts between it and Jefferson County, Alabama, pay $75 million in civil fines and payments, and forfeit $647 million in claimed termination fees under the swap contracts.

The allegations giving rise to liabilities in excess of $722 million for JP Morgan ultimately arose from allegations concerning the actions of just two (now former) managing directors of JPMorgan. “The transactions were complex but the scheme was simple,” SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami said in a statement. “Senior JP Morgan bankers made unlawful payments to win business and earn fees.”

These federal enforcement developments highlight the importance of instituting a proper compliance training program. Firms should review and revise policies, practices, and procedures to stay current on the most recent versions of the rules and regulations promulgated by the SEC and MSRB. The SEC has put the regulated community on notice that failure to implement proper compliance policies and train employees adequately can have significant negative consequences. By undertaking the effort to develop a comprehensive compliance program before problems arise, companies can better protect themselves from potential liability and its related, potentially catastrophic, costs and expenses.

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