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The D.C. Circuit rejected efforts by the SEC to compel the Securities Investor Protection Corporation to liquidate a broker-dealer that was part of the Stanford Ponzi scheme empire. The investors had purchased CDs from an off-shore Stanford entity. The Circuit Court affirmed the decision of the District Court. SEC v. SIPC, No. 12-5286 (D.C. Cir. Decided July 18, 2014).
The case arose out of the massive financial fraud authored by Robert Allen Stanford. At the center of the scheme the SEC has called a Ponzi scheme, was a complex web of entities. Two are involved here. One is the Stanford International Bank, Ltd. or SIBL, a bank organized under Antiguan law. It sold debt assets that promised a fixed rate of return. The second is Stanford Group Company or SGC, a Huston-based broker-dealer registered with the SEC.
To purchase a CD, investors had to open an account with SIBL, according to the factual record which was largely stipulated. CD purchasers paid the bank for the instruments. The U.S. disclosure statements stated that SIPIC did not provide coverage for the CDs.
In 2009 the SEC brought a civil enforcement action against Mr. Stanford, SGC, SIBL and others. The court appointed a receiver for SGC and other entities. The receiver concluded that the bank had outstanding about $7.2 billion in CDs. The receiver asked SIPC to determine if it would liquidate SGC to protect the assets of those who had purchased CDs from SIBL. SIPIC determined that those investors were not covered. Eventually, the SEC prevailed in its case and imposed a $6 billion civil penalty. Mr. Stanford was convicted on criminal charges and sentenced to serve 110 years in prison. Antiguan authorities initiated separate proceedings to liquidate SIBL and process claims. Other civil litigation was initiated.
Two years later the SEC concluded SIPIC was wrong as to the SIBL issued CDs. It filed an application with the District Court to compel SIPC to commence liquidation proceedings. SIPIC declined. The District Court concluded that SIPIC was correct in determining that the CD purchasers were not customers within the meaning of the Act, a prerequisite to coverage. The District Court rejected the request for an order to compel SIPIC.
The critical question here, according to the Circuit Court, is whether those who purchased SIBL CDs at the suggestion of the broker-dealer are customers for purposes of the Securities Investor Protection Act. That Act, passed in 1970, created SIPIC to provide relief to customers of failing broker-dealers. When a SIPC member firm is in financial difficulty the non-profit corporation can initiate a liquidation proceeding in which a trustee can be appointed to oversee the liquidation of the firm after removal to bankruptcy court. The trustee is to return any customer cash and securities on deposit with the broker. If there are insufficient funds, SIPIC must cover the shortfall up to certain limits. The SEC has plenary authority to supervise SIPIC.
The Securities Investor Protection Act focuses on the custody function of brokers. It provides coverage for customer funds and securities held on deposit with the broker which, prior to the Act, were often depleted in the liquidation of the firm. The Act generally affords no protection against other types of losses.
A customer is generally defined as a person who has deposited cash with the broker for the purpose of purchasing securities. A claimant must generally demonstrate that the broker received or held the claimant’s property and that the transaction gave rise to the claim and contained the indicia of a fiduciary relationship between the customer and the broker.
In this case the purchasers of SIBL CDs are not customers within the meaning of the Act, the Court held. It is undisputed that the investors did not deposit cash with SGC. Since “SGC had no custody over the investors’ cash or securities, the investors do not qualify as SGC ‘customers’ under the ordinary operation of the statutory definition” the Court concluded.
The SEC argued, however, that given the interrelation of the Stanford entities, funds deposited with SIBL should be viewed as effectively on deposit with SGC – the entities should be viewed as one. This theory is grounded on the bankruptcy doctrine of “substantive consolidation” which, under equitable principles, would view the entities as one.
While that doctrine may be applicable here, it does not support the SEC’s contention. The SIPIC statute excludes from coverage investments in the debtor which add to its capital, the Court stated. Thus, even if the entities are viewed as one, since the CDs are a contractual investment in the entity which added to the capital of SIBL, they are excluded. While the SEC attempted to side-step this result by arguing that the CD proceeds became part of the capital of SIBL and not the broker dealer, if the entities are merged the funds become part of the capital of the merged entity.
Finally, in its reply brief the SEC claimed for the first time that funds given to a consolidated entity for the CDs should not become part of the entity’s capital because they were part of a Ponzi scheme. The SEC offered no authority for this contention which was rejected by the Court. The fact is the CD purchasers acted as lenders which are not covered. While the plight of these investors is unfortunate, the Court noted, they are not covered by the statute.
For more news and commentary on developing securities issues, visit SEC Actions, a blog by Thomas Gorman.
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