As we move closer to the signing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, more groups are highlighting the fact that state securities divisions are going to be affected by the act. After pressure from NASAA, the association of state securities regulators, Congress has provided that state regulators will be required to provide oversight of investment advisers with up to $100 million of AUM – a significant increase from the current level of $30 million of AUM. Of course this will increase the number of advisers that the states oversee and will make the job of the securities divisions much more difficult. We have consistently stated that we do not think the states, collectively, are going to be capable to provide proper oversight with the increase in responsibility – mostly because of budget issues. We have been surveying the states to see which divisions have budget issues and will be reporting on that shortly. Until then we will examine one securities division which has faced scrutiny from members of the investment community and the state legislature.
Overview of Utah Division of Securities Audit
Over the years there has been a number of complaints about the manner in which the Utah Division of Securities conducts business – a simple Google search will reveal a number of interesting stories. After repeated complaints the state legislature decided to audit the division and released a report in July of 2008 entitled A Performance Audit of the Division of Securities.
The results are nothing less than shocking.
Faith in government agencies is based on the belief that they will act fairly and effectively. The report shows capricious behavior and essentially a belief that members of the investment management community are ‘guilty’ until proven ‘innocent’. Special attention should be paid to the fact that the state securities divisions do have power to make life miserable for a business owner, even if that business owner has not acted wrongly. Redress is difficult and “the Division Always Wins” (see below). It is in with this understanding that we question whether the states will be in the best position to oversee the investment management industry.
Below are a number of direct quotes from the audit – many should make any ready angry and sick. [Please note that we are not saying that all securities divisions have these problems. Additionally, we have not conducted any follow up with Utah so we do not express any opinion on the current state of the division.]
Reason for audit:
The credibility of the Division of Securities has been challenged by those investigated by the division. Their concerns are with procedural errors, an alleged overzealous pursuit of securities violations, and the perception that those investigated do not receive fair treatment.
While the division protects securities investors, it is alleged the division has abused its power and damaged reputations. The division has significant authority but its credibility depends on using that authority judiciously.
Ad Hoc Manner of Conducting Investigations:
There does not appear to be a consistent relationship between the number of complaints, number of cases opened, and the number of actions filed. This is because cases can be opened without a resulting action, there can be multiple actions on one case, or the action may not be filed until the following year. In addition, our evaluation leads us to believe the information is not reliable.
Reason for Division Audit
Legislators requested this audit based on concerns about how the division managed three cases. We reviewed the division’s administrative process followed in these cases and a number of others brought to our attention. We did not address the legal issues of any of the cases. Our work has been complicated by the desire of many interviewees to keep their names confidential. They fear reprisal for criticizing the division’s actions.
Lack of Policies & Procedures Equals Inconsistent Decisions
The division has not been operating under set, written policies and procedures. As a result, division decisions for actions against the regulated industry and the treatment of its employees rest solely with department and division management. Frequent management changes have brought changes in management philosophy and an increased likelihood for inconsistent decisions.
Years of No Policies & Procedures
During the course of this audit, we were told that the division did have policies and procedures a number of years ago. However, there have been no written policies and procedures in place, or operational procedures followed, for at least the last four years under the direction of three division directors. Shortly before this audit’s completion, division staff found a discarded copy of a 1993 policies and procedures manual. It is disconcerting that the division has faced procedural control difficulties for a number of years, yet no one in either departmental or divisional leadership noted the lack of policies and procedures.
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HUGE ISSUE FOR STATE REGISTERED MANAGERS
Complaints surfaced that those charged with securities violations could not get a fair hearing.
Division Bias Ignored
In several cases, it was questionable if the former director had maintained an independent and unbiased perspective. For example, the former director did not recuse himself from serving as the presiding officer after helping to draft the pleadings for the case. It was apparent he was no longer impartial. Even the perception that the presiding officer is biased is concerning as it can give the appearance of unfair treatment.
Intimidation…and…the Division always wins…
Those accused of securities violations told us they felt intimidated into settling, given that the division’s former director would likely serve as the presiding officer. One business owner perceived the system as “a stacked deck” because the investigator, jury, and judge are all in the same office. He informed us that during an investigation, a division employee boasted that the division always wins.
poor communication between the former director and an attorney resulted in the exclusion of the attorney from a decision on how a case would be handled, even though the attorney had been involved in the case for a number of months. The attorney was frustrated and raised concerns when the former director drafted and sent out documents over the attorney’s name, thus implying the AG gave his approval, even though the attorney was not aware a decision had been made and had not reviewed the final document. He learned about the legal action when defendants contacted him because they assumed he represented the division. The former director contends that the attorney was familiar with the document.
During the audit, many individuals associated with various cases contacted us with complaints about the division. Our review of case files resulted in a number of questionable actions including: inappropriate publicity, emphasis on punishment rather than compliance, the use of intimidation tactics, violating terms of settlement agreements, failure to notify those being investigated, and inconsistent case management.
Fear of Retaliation!!??
To evaluate these complaints, we reviewed case files, listened to tapes of hearings, and interviewed staff and attorneys involved with the cases. Many of those who talked with us requested confidentiality because they feared retaliatory action by the division if they were identified.
questionable actions often can be attributed to the divisions lack of clearly defined procedures. A discarded policy manual states that “the manual will be reviewed and updated on a yearly basis to reflect current or additional practices.” Not complying with this requirement has resulted in division policies and procedures that are inconsistently applied.
Emphasis on Punishment Rather than Compliance
The division appears to emphasize punishment of offenders rather than compliance with securities laws. A number of those involved in the division’s actions believe the division has overzealously pursued securities violations. They criticize that charges are brought one after another, cases are drawn out over long periods of time, and decisions on who to investigate can be arbitrary.
Threats and Coercion
The division’s use of intimidation to obtain information has been cited by both those being investigated and others involved with the division. In one case, the accused stated that an investigator attempted to coerce cooperation by intimidating and threatening that the person would be arrested. In another case, investigators seized personal information by copying all information from the business owner’s computer without distinguishing business and personal information. The owner said that he complied with the investigator’s demands only because they threatened to immediately close him down if he refused.
Does not Honor Settlement Agreements
The division has, at times, violated the terms of its settlement agreements. In one case, the division agreed to not publicize the action or commence further administrative actions and then violated both terms of the agreement. The person accused told us he felt compelled to plead guilty to a lesser criminal charge rather than place his business in jeopardy defending a greater charge. The division agreed to not seek additional charges but nevertheless pursued an administrative action. The respondent then signed the settlement agreement after the division agreed to not publicize it. However, the day the settlement was signed, the division publicized the information on its web page and also published the information in its newsletter the following month.
Surprised Charges Filed…Harming Innocent Business
According to the business owner, he learned about the investigation only after it was completed and charges were filed. Before he had an opportunity to respond, the media called to ask about the division revoking his license and issuing fraud charges. The media release was damaging to the business and the resulting retraction and apology was damaging to the division.
The division has been criticized for not identifying how fines are set. Board minutes disclosed the former director explained that fines are set to “make it hurt,” which is troublesome to those in the securities industry. The former director explained to us that fines are set based on an evaluation of the seriousness, nature, circumstances, and persistence of the conduct which is consistent with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) guidelines. However, because the division does not have written guidelines or procedures identifying the process used to set fines, they appear to be set arbitrarily, based solely at the discretion of the division.
Staff Demoralized, Scared of Reprisal
Personnel conflicts within the Division of Securities (division) have resulted in management turnover and a demoralized staff. Both the department executive director and the division’s former director have been open about their beliefs that specific employees have seemed reluctant to accept change and may be subverting management authority. A number of division staff feel their jobs are threatened or other forms of management reprisal may occur should they offend management in some way. The escalating conflicts have resulted in reprimands, restructuring, and ultimately, the resignation of the director, and the threat of legal action by several employees.
Division Blatantly Breaks Laws at Director’s Direction
After being hired in October 2005, a number of the former director’s actions have been questionable. He was reprimanded and received a one-day suspension without pay for instructing staff to hold fine payment checks without processing them within the three-day time period required by statute (Utah Code 51-4-1). Delaying the deposit would allow the division to retain funds in the division rather than transfer them to the state general fund. By statute, if a balance in the division’s education fund exceeds $100,000 at the close of a fiscal year, the excess must be transferred to the General Fund (Utah Code 61-1-18.7(6)).
Staff related other instances in which they feel the former director gave them inappropriate directions. For example, staff provided information showing the director:
- directed staff to sign pleadings that the former director had either drafted or modified, possibly to prevent his name, as the presiding officer, from appearing on documents. Administrative rules state “the signature shall be deemed to be a certification that the signer has read the pleading and that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, there is good ground to support it.”
- directed staff to provide protected information to an influential person which violates Utah securities law prohibiting employees from disclosing non-public information filed with or obtained by the division (Utah Code 61-1-18.3).
- used coercive settlement tactics by instructing staff to keep unwarranted allegations in the pleadings to serve as a bargaining chip for the negotiations. The respondent agreed to the settlement after the allegations were removed.Page 30-31
We hope that this provides another look at the issue of having the states responsible for investment advisers with a wide ranging practice which may involve investors from many states.