As I’ve written about numerous times in the past, a primary agenda of the SEC and FINRA is to prevent small- and micro-cap fraud. On March 23, 2016, the SEC charged Guy Gentile with penny stock fraud. The SEC complaint, as well as numerous industry articles and a blog by Mr. Gentile himself, reveal in-depth efforts by the SEC together with FINRA and the FBI and DOJ to remove recidivist and bad actors from the micro-cap system. While the methods used by the regulators have been the subject of heated debates and articles, the message and result remain that the SEC is committed to its efforts to deter securities law violations.
Although small- and micro-cap fraud has always been an important area of concern and enforcement by the SEC since the financial crisis of 2008, it has increasingly been a focus. Regulators have amplified their efforts through regulations and stronger enforcement, including the SEC Broken Windows policy, increased Dodd-Frank whistleblower activity and reward payments, CEO and CFO liability for SEC reports under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and increased bad actor prohibitions. See my blog HERE related to the SEC Broken Windows policy and CEO/CFO liability (as an aside, I note that the proposed Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act never made it past its introduction in July 2015) and HERE related to Rule 506 and Regulation A bad actor prohibitions.
The fight against small- and micro-cap fraud is an industry positive overall. While not a regulator, OTC Markets itself has taken great strides in improving the quality of and information available related to OTC Markets-traded companies, including through qualitative and quantitative standards for quotation on both the OTCQB (see my blog HERE) and OTCQX (see my blog HERE).
The Guy Gentile Case
On March 23, 2016, the SEC charged Guy Gentile with penny stock fraud. The SEC litigation release alleges that Gentile, who owned and operated Sure Trader, a registered broker-dealer, engaged in manipulative trading, provided illegal kickbacks, illegally issued unregistered stock and distributed promotional mailings of glossy newsletters using fake publication names to pump the stocks of at least two penny stocks (KYUS and RVNG). The SEC continues that Gentile misled investors with positive but fake price and volume trends while concealing the control persons’ identities and compensation. Apparently, Gentile, together with attorney Adam Gottbetter and a few stock promoters, controlled large blocks of the companies’ stock, which control was not disclosed in company filings or the promotional activities.
The SEC complaint, filed in March 2016, details Gentile’s actions involving KYUS and RVNG, which actions occurred in 2007 and 2008. As alleged by the SEC, the entire history of RVNG and KYUS was a fraud, from its creation using a sham registration (see my blog HERE for more on this) to its issuances of freely tradable securities to insiders, manipulative trades and promotional activities.
The SEC complaint does not address the fact that a period of 8-9 years went by between the illegal activities and the filing of the complaint. Guy Gentile has written a detailed blog explaining his version of events, or more precisely, what happened in the missing years. In particular, Gentile claims that he was arrested in 2012 and that from that time until the complaint against him in March 2016, he acted as a cooperating witness and SEC and FBI informant, assisting in the indictment of over a dozen individuals related to hundreds of millions of dollars in pump-and-dump and other illegal activities and resulting in over $12 million in fines and disgorgements with the potential of tens of millions more to come.
Gentile details his involvement in elaborate, and sometimes dangerous, undercover operations. The complaint, together with Gentile’s blog and numerous industry articles on the events, reads like a movie. It is undisputed that Gentile’s brokerage firm, Sure Trader, which was based in the Bahamas, remained in business and continued to market to U.S.-based retail customers after Gentile’s arrest in 2012 and through at least July 2015. It appears that the entire firm was wired up and all happenings were being recorded by the FBI.
Guy Gentile’s biggest defense is the statute of limitations, which is five years. However, apparently he signed a waiver of the statute of limitations while acting as an informant.
The prevention of fraud has been on the SEC agenda since the commission was founded in 1933, with efforts intensifying as the sophistication of the marketplace has grown. On November 17, 2009, President Obama established, by executive order, an Interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to strengthen efforts to combat financial crime. To start, the Department of Justice led the task force and the Department of Treasury, HUD and the SEC served on the steering committee. The task force’s leadership, along with representatives from federal agencies and regulatory authorities, continue to work with state and local partners to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, address discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims.
Putting aside the entertainment value of the entire case, it does fully illustrate the commitment by regulators to attack small- and micro-cap fraud. Clearly, the more of these egregious activities that are uncovered and prosecuted, the more success legitimate small businesses will have raising capital, growing, and supporting the U.S. economy including through job creation.
It is undisputed that emerging companies play a critical role in the U.S. economy, supporting growth, innovation and job creation. The JOBS Act made dramatic changes to the landscape for the marketing and selling of both private and public securities. These significant changes include: (i) the creation of Rule 506(c), which came into effect on September 23, 2013, and allows for general solicitation and advertising in private offerings where the purchasers are limited to accredited investors; (ii) the overhaul of Regulation A creating two tiers of offerings, which came into effect on June 19, 2015, and allows for both pre-filing and post-filing marketing of an offering, called “testing the waters”; (iii) the addition of Section 5(d) of the Securities Act, which came into effect in April 2012, permitting emerging-growth companies to test the waters by engaging in pre- and post-filing communications with qualified institutional buyers or institutions that are accredited investors; and (iv) Title III crowdfunding, which came into effect on May 19, 2016, and allows for the use of Internet-based marketing and sales of securities offerings.
Furthermore, the OTC Markets has proven itself as a small-cap venture exchange, supporting the secondary trading of small and emerging growth companies and providing a respected trading platform for companies prior to moving on to an exchange such as NASDAQ or the NYSE MKT.
The other side of these initiatives is the real concern of fraud. I’m not expressing an opinion on the methods used by the regulators in this case, but I do support the efforts. I also believe in the basic principle that it is better for the industry that investors believe egregious fraudulent activities will be prosecuted.
This firm does not participate in SEC enforcement proceedings or related litigation matters; however, as with any good securities attorney, we keep our clients informed of the law so that they can avoid participation in these proceedings.
Securities attorney Laura Anthony and her experienced legal team provides ongoing corporate counsel to small and mid-size private companies, OTC and exchange traded issuers as well as private companies going public on the NASDAQ, NYSE MKT or over-the-counter market, such as the OTCQB and OTCQX. For nearly two decades Legal & Compliance, LLC has served clients providing fast, personalized, cutting-edge legal service. The firm’s reputation and relationships provide invaluable resources to clients including introductions to investment bankers, broker dealers, institutional investors and other strategic alliances. The firm’s focus includes, but is not limited to, compliance with the Securities Act of 1933 offer sale and registration requirements, including private placement transactions under Regulation D and Regulation S and PIPE Transactions as well as registration statements on Forms S-1, S-8 and S-4; compliance with the reporting requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, including registration on Form 10, reporting on Forms 10-Q, 10-K and 8-K, and 14C Information and 14A Proxy Statements; Regulation A/A+ offerings; all forms of going public transactions; mergers and acquisitions including both reverse mergers and forward mergers, ; applications to and compliance with the corporate governance requirements of securities exchanges including NASDAQ and NYSE MKT; crowdfunding; corporate; and general contract and business transactions. Moreover, Ms. Anthony and her firm represents both target and acquiring companies in reverse mergers and forward mergers, including the preparation of transaction documents such as merger agreements, share exchange agreements, stock purchase agreements, asset purchase agreements and reorganization agreements. Ms. Anthony’s legal team prepares the necessary documentation and assists in completing the requirements of federal and state securities laws and SROs such as FINRA and DTC for 15c2-11 applications, corporate name changes, reverse and forward splits and changes of domicile. Ms. Anthony is also the author of SecuritiesLawBlog.com, the OTC Market’s top source for industry news, and the producer and host of LawCast.com, the securities law network. In addition to many other major metropolitan areas, the firm currently represents clients in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Denver, Tampa, Detroit and Dallas.
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