At a recent panel organized by San Francisco’s Federal Bar Association, the San Francisco Regional Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Jina Choi, confirmed that the agency continues to focus on investor fraud in the pre-IPO private market space. Highlighting enforcement actions against the non-public Zenefits, Credit Karma, and Theranos[1], Ms. Choi reiterated the SEC’s commitment to aggressive oversight over “unicorns,” or privately-held companies valued over $1 billion. The SEC first announced its intent to step up enforcement in this space in a March 2016 speech by previous SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, and Ms. Choi reported that the current SEC leadership, led by current Chairman Jay Clayton, is equally committed to policing this “beat.”

The Compliance Gap has been closely tracking SEC compliance enforcement at privately-held companies, which began in earnest last fall when the SEC announced that the non-public human resources company Zenefits and its founder, Parker Conrad had agreed to pay a combined $980,000 to settle claims that the company intentionally misled the company’s Series B and C investors. The SEC alleged Conrad and the company had misled investors about the degree to which Zenefits complied with state licensing laws, resulting in a lowered valuation when the compliance failures were revealed.

In March of this year the SEC reported a first-of-its-kind settlement with Credit Karma, in which the company agreed to pay $160,000 to settle claims that it failed to provide its employees with the disclosures required by Rule 701(e) of the Securities Act.  Rule 701 requires that a company compensating its employees with stock options provide detailed financial and risk disclosures before the date of sale. The SEC alleged that Credit Karma sold approximately $13.8 million in stock options to its employees without providing the information required by Rule 701.

Just two days after announcing the Credit Karma settlement, the SEC also filed a complaint against health care company Theranos, company founder Elizabeth Holmes, and former President and Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. In the complaints the SEC alleged that the company, Ms. Holmes, and Mr. Balwani made false claims about the capabilities of the company’s proprietary blood-test analyzers, regulatory approval of the proprietary blood-test analyzers, and the company’s business relationships with the U.S. Department of Defense.  Theranos and Ms. Holmes agreed to settle the claims made by the SEC, but Mr. Balwani has chosen to litigate what will surely be a closely watched case.

Ms. Choi also highlighted the SEC’s new approach to devising inventive ways to punish investor fraud in the private space. For example, Ms. Choi noted that the agency required both company and individual settlement payments in the Zenefits and Theranos resolutions (Ms. Holmes agreed to pay $500,000 and Mr. Conrad agreed to pay nearly that amount).  Ms. Holmes was also required to forfeit her ownership interest in Theranos, and was permanently banned from serving as an officer or director of any publicly-traded company.  Ms. Choi indicated that these remedies were arrived at through significant consultations with allegedly defrauded investors.  This approach indicates a shift towards creative remediation schemes that reflect the wishes of alleged victims, and the perceived need for individual punishments in the privately-held company space where founders can be interchangeable with the companies they build.

[1] Farella, Braun + Martel, LLP represents an individual in connection with the Theranos investigation. This report contains only publicly available information.

Last week the SEC announced it had reached an agreement with privately-held company Zenefits, and its co-founder and former CEO Parker Conrad, to settle allegations that Zenefits materially misled Series B and C investors. The parties agreed to settle for over a combined $980,000 (Zenefits agreed to pay $450,000, with Conrad responsible for the balance). This appears to be a first-of-its-kind SEC enforcement action against a privately-held company, reflecting this ongoing enforcement priority for the agency in Silicon Valley.  Continue Reading With Zenefits Settlement Award SEC Demonstrates Continued Commitment to “Unicorn” Scrutiny Despite Administration Change: Same Old Sheriff in Town

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Earlier this year we highlighted the growing trend of regulators asserting continuing post-investigation control over the operations of companies accused of compliance failures. At the state level, we highlighted a deal reached between the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) and Zenefits, a privately-held health care brokerage firm, in which the DIR agreed to forgive half of a $7 million fine in exchange for continuing audits to evaluate future compliance with state regulations.

At the federal level, we’re seeing the same trend. Continue Reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Ongoing Regulatory Monitoring Increasing in Federal and State Non-Compliance Resolution

Blog-Image---TechnologyAfter a series of compliance failures leading to the resignation of company’s CEO, the privately-held health care brokerage company Zenefits was just hit with a $7 million dollar settlement by the California Department of Insurance (DIR). The terms of the settlement may reflect a new trend in compliance enforcement, namely that regulators are trading monetary penalties for oversight over privately-held companies. Continue Reading Steep Fines for Company With Compliance Problems, but Recognition of Remediation Efforts May Provide Model Going Forward

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The brightest minds in Silicon Valley work 24/7 to disrupt existing systems and industries. No one can argue that Uber and Lyft haven’t fundamentally altered transportation, that AirBnB hasn’t changed the way we travel, or that Netflix hasn’t rendered brick and mortar video rental stores obsolete. Can those same minds harness the innovative energy of the region to make it easier for regulated industries to comply with state and federal laws? At least one Silicon Valley company thinks so, and is exploring new ways to marry its technological expertise with its compliance obligations. Continue Reading Private Company Enforcement: Bay Area Tech Company Designs Tech Solution to Its Compliance Problems

Every day corporate entities and individuals in some parts of the world provide payments to foreign officials in exchange for business favors. While it may be a common feature of business in these places, this kind of activity is illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which criminalizes various acts of bribery and related accounting fraud. The consequences for failing to comply with the FCPA are severe, and ensuring compliance can be especially difficult for start-up or relatively young companies growing rapidly and expanding into foreign markets before they can institute robust compliance systems. Continue Reading Minding the Compliance Gap in an Evolving FCPA Landscape

The Securities and Exchange Commission organized an Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies to provide the SEC with advice on its rules, regulations and policies as they relate to emerging privately held small businesses and publicly traded companies with less than $200 million in public market capitalization.   The Advisory Committee issued its recommendations to the SEC Chair, Mary Jo White back on September 23, 2015: Continue Reading SEC Looks to Ease Small Business Ability to Raise Capital

California Corporations Code Section 25206.1, which became effective January 1, 2016 permits “finders” to be exempt from broker-dealer provisions of California securities laws. In other words, this new section legalizes payments of finder’s fees by an issuer of securities to a person who introduces one or more accredited investors to that issuer, regardless of whether that person is a registered broker. Continue Reading Payments to Finders Fall Outside of California Broker-Dealer Provisions