By Bret Daniel , Wealthforge.com, CrowdfundBeat Guest Post,
The SEC crackdown on unregistered entities continues to grab headlines. Recently, we wrote about the importance of complying with the broker-dealer registration requirement under Section 15(a) by highlighting the latest violations by portfolio managers, online platforms, and individuals.
We suggested that anyone that helps to facilitate a securities offering, even in the broadest sense, should consult a lawyer about the necessity of registering as a broker. The most recent SEC enforcement action, however, demonstrates that even lawyers can get tangled up in the wide net cast over unregistered broker-dealers.
EB-5: Visa or Security?
Mark Ivener was a partner at the California-based law firm Ivener & Fullmer, LLP (both “Respondents”).1 Ivener specialized in immigration law and regularly counseled clients on how to qualify for EB-5 visas under the Immigrant Investor Program. The program allows foreign investors to obtain an EB-5 visa—and permanent resident status for themselves, their spouses, and their children—by investing $1 million2 in a commercial enterprise in the United States that creates or preserves at least ten full-time jobs for American workers. A prevalent vehicle for making such an investment is through a Regional Center. Regional Centers are allocated a certain number of EB-5 visas for qualifying investments that typically take the form of limited partnership interests, a security under federal securities law. When Ivener counseled clients on how to qualify for EB-5 visas, he referred them to at least one Regional Center. The relationship between Ivener, his firm, and that Regional Center was formalized in a “Referral Services Agreement” that provided for referral commissions. In effect, Ivener was advising his clients to invest in EB-5 securities, and further, receiving transaction-based compensation from those investments. From January 2009 to December 2011, Ivener earned commissions totaling $450,000.
The SEC determined the Respondents’ actions were in violation of Section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act. Commonly known as the “registration requirement,” Section 15(a)(1) makes it unlawful for an unregistered entity “to effect any transaction in, or to induce or attempt to induce the purchase or sale of, any security.” Per the terms of a settlement offer, the SEC ordered Respondents to pay $450,000 in disgorgement and $87,855 in interest. Based on the plain language of the statute and broad application by the SEC, it is unsurprising for those versed in securities law that Ivener’s conduct rose to the level of “effecting” or “inducing” the purchase of securities. For Ivener, however, by all accounts an immigration expert, the pitfalls and minefields of securities law may have been completely foreign.
This not the first time we have seen EB-5 matching, a prevalent practice, result in SEC enforcement action. We provided analysis about one such case relating to a Florida company, Ireeco LLC, and a related foreign entity.
In the Ivener Order, the SEC notes that the Regional Center, the investment vehicles, and the managers “paid commission to anyone who successfully facilitated the sale of limited partnership interests to new investors.” The SEC explicitly classified the commission as transaction-based, but did not provide details on the commission structure.
In the Ireeco case, the sanctions totaled nearly $3.2 million dollars in disgorgement plus prejudgment interest.3 There, the respondent’s illicit commissions were a set percentage of a related flat-fee, but the commissions were contingent upon the investor receiving a condition green card. Therefore, although the Ireeco respondents’ commission was independent of the size of the investment, it was contingent upon a successful closing.
Regardless of what technically qualifies as transaction-based compensation, the range of activities garnering enforcement activity highlights some very important points: (a) a broad range of commission structures may draw ire from the SEC and (b) transaction-based compensation may not be dispositive of whether one is in violation of Section 15(a).
Other Factors to Consider
Generally, “[a] person effects transactions if he or she participates in securities transactions ‘at key points in the chain of distribution.’”4 Transaction-based compensation is a clear indicator of participation in key points of the securities distribution chain. However, it is only one of several factors. Other activities to consider include:
- Selecting the market to which a securities transaction will be sent
- Assisting an issuer to structure prospective securities transactions
- Helping an issuer to identify potential purchasers of securities
- Helping purchasers to identify potential security offerings
- Soliciting securities transactions (including advertising)
- Participating in the order taking or routing process
- Operation or control of electronic or other platforms to trade securities
Such broad framing affords the SEC flexibility, and enforcement action like that taken against Mr. Ivener and his firm illustrates the Commission’s commitment to rooting out and shutting down unregistered brokers in every field.