Corruption at the SEC

Corporate fraud has been an oxymoron under recent SEC leadership

The SEC is a mysterious agency which (?) must fall under the jurisdiction of the Treasury because it is a monetary regulatory agency in the business of regulating.

There are quite a lot of undisputable facts on the ground which suggest that SEC is a corrupt organization which should be investigated using RICO statute. The Greenspan era represents not only the triumph of blind ideology and economic pseudo-science over common sense but also the triumph of regulatory capture and regulatory corruption. Like the period of Bolshevism in Russia the USA lived through a strange, self-reinforcing political, social and academic delusion. Like Marx used to say “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Corporate fraud has been an oxymoron under recent SEC leadership. Budget cuts and staffing issues are just an easy excuse, a smoke screen to hide their lack of integrity. How any SEC functionaries can explain with a strait face the rationale to go after Martha Steward instead of Bernie Madoff ?  Actually neither Levin (who helped to to kill nor Cox were prosecuted for the abdication of duty.

In The SEC’s culture of regulatory capture  the point was made that SEc actually empowered the Ponzi schemers:

Just to make sure everybody agrees that $7-billion is a lot of money – keep in mind it exceeds the GNP of 40% of the nations on earth. Imagine putting a match to all the goods and services produced in one year by the people of Laos or Mongolia. Stanford is accused of doing that, and more. But because it’s just a tenth of the wealth destroyed by Madoff, Stanford may forever be regarded a Ponzi also-ran.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the Stanford case is the bigger outrage by far, not so much for the scam itself, but for the shocking behavior of the regulators tasked with preventing it. Where Madoff was enabled by SEC bureaucratic incompetence, Stanford was empowered by overt SEC indifference.

That’s right – indifference. Unlike Meghan Cheung, the former head of enforcement at the SEC’s New York branch, who didn’t know how to determine whether Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, her counterpart in Fort Worth spent years swimming in evidence of Stanford’s scam, but simply preferred not to do anything about it.

The evidence, if you can stomach it, is oozing out of the report recently submitted by SEC Inspector General extraordinaire David Kotz. In it, we learn that SEC examiners spotted the red flags as early as 1997, and spent eight years lobbying then-chief of Fort Worth’s enforcement division, Spencer Barasch, to investigate. Barasch repeatedly declined, even as evidence of the Stanford scam – together with the size of the scam itself – grew exponentially.

The first referral by SEC examiners was sent to Barasch in 1998. According to the testimony of Julie Preuitt, who helped author the request, Barasch declined to investigate after discussing the matter with Stanford’s legal counsel at the time, former SEC Fort Worth District Administrator Wayne Secore.

Local XRP Ripple news

According to the report:

Barasch told Preuitt “he asked Wayne Secore if there was a case there and Wayne Secore said that there wasn’t. So he was satisfied with that and decided not to pursue it further.”

Obviously, Barasch denies this, and such a claim would be difficult to believe were it not for the well-documented facts that follow.

Barasch finally left the SEC for a spot as partner in the law firm of Andrews Kurth in 2005, shortly after putting the kibosh on a third attempt by SEC examiners to investigate Stanford. Barasch’s replacement accepted a similar recommendation later that year, but the resulting inquiry was mismanaged and did not produce an enforcement case until February 2009, after the Commission’s hand was forced by Madoff’s admission two months earlier.

But it was what happened after Barasch’s departure from the SEC that casts his earlier actions in a much harsher light. As the investigation discovered:

[Barasch], who played a significant role in multiple decisions over the years to quash investigations of Stanford, sought to represent Stanford on three separate occasions after he left the Commission, and in fact represented Stanford briefly in 2006 before he was informed by the SEC Ethics Office that it was improper to do so.

The final of Barasch’s three attempts to represent Stanford was by far the most brazen, not to mention instructive. It happened in February 2009, immediately after the SEC filed suit against Stanford. Like the two before it, the third was also denied. When asked to justify the renewed request, Barasch replied,

“Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich over this case. Okay? And I hated being on the sidelines.”

In email, veritas.

Not only was Barasch apparently numb to the definition of “ethical conflict,” he seems to have used it as a business development tool, at least that’s the impression left by an email not included in the Kotz report but acquired by the Dallas Morning News. According to the email, after Mark Cuban was sued by the SEC’s Fort Worth office for insider trading in 2008, Barasch told an associate of Cuban’s,

“I am friends with and helped promote two of the guys who signed the Complaint against Mark. Someone should tell Mark to look at my profile on my firm website, my SEC press releases, and advise Mark to add me to his defense team.”

It’s safe to say that Barasch plays the heavy in the IG’s report, but read it carefully, and you’ll find that he’s not the real villain. Instead, that role is played subtly but consistently by the broader SEC Enforcement Division’s flawed culture.

As the report stated,

We found that the Fort Worth Enforcement program’s decisions not to undertake a full and thorough investigation of Stanford were due, at least in part, to Enforcement’s perception that the Stanford case was difficult, novel and not the type favored by the Commission. The former head of the Fort Worth office told the OIG that regional offices were “heavily judged” by the number of cases they brought and that it was very important for the Fort Worth office to bring a high number of cases…The former head of the Examination program in Fort Worth testified that Enforcement leadership in Fort Worth “was pretty upfront” with the Enforcement staff about the pressure to produce numbers and communicated to the Enforcement staff, “I want numbers. I want these things done quick.” He also testified that this pressure for numbers incentivized the Enforcement staff to focus on “easier cases” – “quick hits.”

And these instructions were predictably manifest in the handling of the Stanford case, as evidenced by the reaction to an anonymous Stanford insider’s letter, first sent to the NASD, denouncing Stanford as a Ponzi scheme. The letter was forwarded to the SEC where Barasch saw and ignored it, saying,

“Rather than spend a lot of resources on something that could end up being something that we could not bring, the decision was made to not go forward at that time, or at least to not spend the significant resources and wait and see if something else would come up.”

The report also cites a former Fort Worth office administrator who says Barasch and others in his group had been subjected to criticism from high-level SEC staff in Washington DC for “bringing too many Temporary Restraining Order, Ponzi, and prime bank cases.”

Accordingly, Fort Worth was admonished to avoid investigating “mainstream” cases in favor of simple accounting fraud.

Now, let’s take a step back to see what insights into the SEC’s enforcement paradigm might be gleaned from what we’ve learned so far.

  1. Given his actions both prior to and after leaving the Commission, I suspect Spencer Barasch’s approach to regulating Stanford – and presumably other entities – was heavily influenced by a desire to maximize his eventual private sector opportunities. This is further evidence that the significance of regulatory capture and the revolving door ethic in the minds of SEC enforcement officials cannot be overstated.
  2. Whereas “Ponzi and prime bank cases” most often apply to investing institutions, while accounting fraud charges are most often leveled against public companies, I suspect the high-level mandate to prefer the latter over the former to be the root of the SEC’s long-suspected anti-issuer/pro-institutional investor bias – or at the very least, further evidence of it.
  3. This apparent anti-issuer bias, paired with the report’s well-documented evidence of the SEC’s preference of case quantity over quality, offers additional support for the widely-held belief that cases against public companies are seen as low-hanging (and career-protecting) fruit in the eyes of Enforcement Division staffers.

If my conclusions are correct, then the Stanford outrage is not really about Spencer Barasch, but the SEC’s flawed enforcement culture, from Washington DC on down. I further suspect this culture to be a key factor in explaining the SEC’s role as enabler of the stock manipulation schemes extensively documented here on Deep Capture.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, consider the words of then-Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Linda Chatman Thomsen, responding to a question posed by a member of the audience following her keynote address at the US Chamber of Commerce’s 2008 Capital Markets Summit.

Audience member: “You spent a lot of time talking about insider trading and penny stock fraud, but you failed to mention an issue that’s of great concern to the Chamber, and that is naked short selling and the unsettled trades that can result from that. How can the Commission claim that it is serious about enforcement when millions of trades fail to settle every day and companies remain on Reg SHO Threshold Lists for years and years?”

Thomsen: “As to naked short selling, and more generally market manipulation generally, it is an area we are focused on. We have seen fewer cases in that arena because, often times, this is not necessarily with respect to naked shorts, but shorting or market manipulation more generally, because often the components of something that might look to be manipulative are all legal trades as you point out. So it’s a hard case to bring, which is not to say that it isn’t something that we don’t investigate, because we do. So I hear and understand the frustration of many on the subject of short selling generally. When we hear complaints about short selling—and, frankly, it is both short and naked short, it is a combination of both—we routinely hear from companies who’ve come in, who worry that they’re being shorted in an illegal way. We routinely take all that information in and look into it.

“And often times, as I think many defense counsel would be happy to tell you, when we dig in, what we find is that some of the information that has caused people to be shorting is actually true as to the company, and we may very well be confronted with two issues, one on the company and its disclosure side as well as on the trading side. But they’re very difficult cases, which is not to say that we aren’t focused on them and interested in them and indeed this new focus that we have on some smaller companies and smaller issuers will wrap some of those concerns into their focus as well.”

Thomsen’s answer needs to be examined from two angles: what she said and what she (meaning, her division) actually did.

What Thomsen said, was that when it comes to illegal, manipulative naked short selling, “it’s a hard case to bring,” and that it often it turns out the targeted company deserved to have its stock manipulated. But don’t worry…the SEC Division of Enforcement cares and regularly investigates complaints of illegal, manipulative short selling.

What Thomsen’s division actually did was quite different. We know this thanks to another outstanding report by SEC Inspector General David Kotz relating to the Commission’s handling of complaints of illegal, manipulative naked short selling between January 2007 and June 2008. What Kotz discovered was that of the more than 5,000 complaints received by the Division of Enforcement during that time, not one resulted in an investigation.

Kotz further found that while robust methods exist for dealing with complaints relating to “spam driven manipulations, unregistered online offerings and insider trading” (again, infractions typically committed by issuers), no written policies existed for dealing with complaints of illegal naked short selling. This “[has] the effect of naked short selling complaints being treated differently than other types of complaints.”

And in this case, “differently” meant “not at all.” This attitude closely mirrors that of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement as described in the Stanford report.

In my opinion, the best thing to happen to the SEC in many years is the arrival of Inspector General David Kotz. The second best thing is the February 2009 departure of Linda Thomsen. In the months following the arrival of Thomsen’s successor, Robert Khuzami, many encouraging developments have been observed, including two enforcement cases brought against manipulative naked short sellers, the permanent adoption of regulations greatly reducing instances of such manipulation, and the recent case brought against Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS). Each of these represents an important departure from the SEC’s long-standing anti-issuer/pro-bank approach to regulation.

These positive developments notwithstanding, the dysfunctional culture at the SEC’s Division of Enforcement was undoubtedly a long time in the making. As a result, it will require a long time to root out. Unfortunately, we don’t have a long time. Investor confidence in the fundamental fairness of our capital markets must be restored now, not as long as it takes the old guard’s institutional memory to fade away. Having read the Stanford report, the only practical solution I see is a new beginning. Congress needs to sunset the SEC on an immovable — and ideally not too distant — date certain and instruct the Department of Justice to have a replacement ready to begin work the next day

“Revolving door” is a legalized corruption scheme for regulators, and it always served as such… Political appointees are essentially banksters Trojan horses. We need that  “ regulators be banned from going to work for their charges forever following completion of their regulatory role.”  Here is a proposal from StatsGuy Aug 15, 2009 post for An Inside Perspective on Regulatory Capture « The Baseline Scenario

Some specific agency suggestions if you want this thing to have some legs:

1) The regulatory agency needs to be self-funding through fees, so that Congress cannot issue threats in conventional spending legislation.

2) Strong anti-revolving door policy, written in law

3) Strong full disclosure and conflict of interest policy for employees

4) Specific mission statement that does not include health of the industry it’s regulating (no “benevolent” regulator”) – Coffey covers this

5) All political appointees do NOT serve at the whim of the President. Like the Fed, the institution is run by a governing board with long, overlapping appointments. For example, a board of 5, one person appointed every 3 years, 15 year appointments.

The board selects all the senior members of the agency, who in term hire the rest of the agency in accordance with civil service rules

6) A standing advisory committee consisting of 1/5 agency members, 2/5 consumer group representatives, and 2/5 financial firm representatives is required to publicly consult on major policy decisions or changes to rules

7) The agency’s powers should be specifically delimited, but should also include a broad statement giving it authority to expand its scope to cover its mission statement. Expansion of scope should be conducted on the advice of an advisory committee to help the agency extract information from the private sector (and avoid the isolation that can result from insulation).

8) Private consumer groups and others (even individuals) should be specifically granted standing to sue the agency for non-enforcement, including class action suit. Possibly even allow collection of reasonable monetary compensation, which will be made up through a temporary fee levy that must be administered on the offenders by the agency.

I’m skeptical any of this will happen, but an institution with these properties would complement the policy initiatives Mr. Coffey raises above.

Was there corrupt intent at the SEC?

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By John E. Deaton, Founder and Host of CryptoLaw.

You would think that blatant government corruption and self-dealing was the stuff of a Hollywood movie, but when you peel back the layers of the Ripple case, examine its origins, and review key facts related to some of its central figures at the Securities and Exchange Commission, a larger story emerges that can’t be ignored.

Former Chairman Jay Clayton, ex-Corporation Finance Director William Hinman, and former Enforcement Director Marc Berger took very specific actions while they were in office, related to very specific cryptocurrencies. In parallel, they have very specific financial interests related to cryptocurrencies, which were benefited by those actions, while millions of retail holders of a specific cryptocurrency were directly harmed. 

Those are the indisputable facts, and taken together they point very clearly to something very troubling behind the SEC’s filing of the Ripple case on Clayton’s last day in office. How can we look at these facts and just dismiss the idea of corrupt intent? 

Here is what we know, in detail:

  • Before joining the SEC, we know that both Clayton and Hinman earned massive fees to support Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group carry out its 2014 IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. Alibaba’s Alipay is the largest digital mobile payments platform in the world, and its New York IPO set the stage for China’s intended dominance in global digital payments.
  • By 2016, Chinese-controlled bitcoin miners had moved to control 65% of the bitcoin network hash rate.  Since bitcoin is a proof-of-work token, this gives China control of its network.
  • On January 20, 2017, Jay Clayton was nominated as Chairman of the SEC by President Donald Trump. Despite widespread concerns regarding Clayton’s numerous conflicts of interest, he was ultimately confirmed and sworn in on May 4, 2017.
  • On May 9, 2017, William Hinman was named the Director of Division of Corporation Finance at the SEC. Upon his appointment to the SEC, Hinman left his post at the law firm Simpson Thacher – which sits on the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance and represents cryptocurrency-related financial interests – but continued to receive millions in financial payments from the firm.  In short, Hinman had a clear financial interest in any regulatory action by the SEC related to cryptocurrencies – while he was serving in a top SEC position!  This was something one former SEC ethics lawyer said was “a little unsettling.” (A little?) 
  • In 2018, Clayton publicly declared bitcoin not a security, sending the price of bitcoin soaring.
  • During a 2018 Yahoo Finance summit in San Francisco, Hinman declared that the Ethereum token, ether, is not a security.  The price of ether skyrocketed.
  • In 2019, Simpson Thacher led Chinese-based crypto mining company Canaan to their IPO. Canaan provides the technology used for mining bitcoin, and is publicly bullish on Bitcoin.  Hinman was still at the SEC when this happened, and still collecting checks from Simpson Thacher.
  • In early November 2020, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote Chairman Clayton to express his growing concerns over China’s dominance in crypto and the risk it poses for U.S. national security.
  • On December 4, 2020, Hinman resigned from the SEC.
  • On December 22, 2020 – Clayton’s last day in office – the SEC Enforcement division led by Berger filed its lawsuit against Ripple and its executives alleging that XRP sales over seven years were unregistered securities trades.  The complaint indicates “all sales” were illegal, therefore ensnaring millions of retail XRP holders who have never heard of Ripple but traded the digital currency for years.  The price of XRP plummeted.
  • On January 12, 2021, Acting Enforcement Director Marc Berger announced his resignation from the SEC, departing the agency at the end of the month.
  • On January 12, 2021, Bloomberg reported that Hinman would be returning to the law firm Simpson Thacher, which continues to sit on the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance.  Government documents indicate Hinman received over $15 million in payments from Simpson Thacher over the four years he served at the SEC:
  • As of March 2021, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) had edged closer to the full-scale launch of their Digital Yuan, releasing millions of dollars of the digital currency in trials.
  • On March 29, 2021, Bloomberg reported that Clayton had accepted a position at One River Asset Management, a digital asset hedge fund focused exclusively on bitcoin and ether.
  • In its case against Ripple, SEC attorneys have been fighting tooth and nail not to adhere to the One River Asset Management subpoena, more than likely in an attempt to keep potentially incriminating evidence about Clayton’s compensation from coming to light.  
  • On April 15, 2021, Bloomberg reported that Berger was joining Hinman as a partner at Simpson Thacher.

Neither Clayton, nor Hinman, nor Berger, nor the SEC have disputed any of these facts or the chronology of how this all unfolded.  Any objective reading clearly suggests that these three had and/or currently retain financial interests linked to the officials’ actions they took at the SEC. 

Why haven’t these individuals, Simpson Thacher and One River been challenged to explain these facts? 

These facts suggest glaring improprieties, so why aren’t they being investigated? Given  cryptocurrencies total market capitalization swelling into trillions of dollars, if now is not the time to investigate, then when?

It is up to the millions of retail XRP holders, who were directly impacted by these actions, to demand answers if no one

else will.

George Carlin on “the American Dream”