Recently, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), which is the oldest international organization devoted to investor protection, published an investor advisory for potential investors in EB-5 projects. In the United States, NASAA is the voice of state securities agencies responsible for efficient capital formation and grass-roots investor protection. Their fundamental mission is protecting consumers who purchase securities or investment advice, and their jurisdiction extends to a wide variety of issuers and intermediaries who offer and sell securities to the public.

EB-5 is now becoming more relevant to NASAA.

The investor alert makes several strong points about red flags that should cause investors to look carefully at a deal before making an investment. One of the classic warning signs in EB-5 deals or really any investment is a promoter minimizing or understating risk. The alert also raises the importance of investors conducting due diligence of a project and its sponsors before committing funds. Continue Reading NASAA Publishes Fraud Alert for EB-5 Investors

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just published three new decisions in connection with administrative proceedings against two well known immigration lawyers, as well as against a third lawyer. One party has allegedly earned $450,000 in commissions from one EB-5 Offeror alone. This enforcement is not surprising. Last year, we saw several immigration lawyers subject to the same proceedings and sanctions. The allegations are resoundingly familiar: Violation of Section 15(a)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”). We expect even more SEC enforcement activity in this space. Why is the SEC targeting immigration lawyers? What implications are there for all parties in an EB-5 transaction and to the industry as a whole when an EB-5 Offeror pays finder’s fees to lawyers?

Immigration lawyers are EB-5 gatekeepers

The SEC has a strong interest in prosecuting civil violations of securities laws by gatekeepers of securities markets.

Immigration lawyers are viewed as gatekeepers to the EB-5 Program. What is a gatekeeper? In the securities law context, a gatekeeper is a professional that holds a position of trust who should be looking out for the interests of a specific securities market. The idea is that the integrity of markets is kept in check by professionals charged with executing their responsibilities. Accountants, lawyers and auditors are often gatekeepers of the securities marketplace.

The SEC has the objective of keeping gatekeepers accountable. The SEC expects gatekeepers — be they accountants, lawyers or auditors to name a few — to raise red flags when there are visible issues and problems in an offering of securities. This maintains the integrity of markets and protects investors. When gatekeepers violate securities laws or engage in conduct that turns the concept of protecting investors on its head, the SEC becomes very interested in holding those individuals accountable. The idea here is that gatekeepers are front-line protectors of a marketplace. Immigration lawyers in the EB-5 industry have often taken on this role. They are often the first to be able to spot an irregularity in an EB-5 transaction. And immigration lawyers often comment on or assist with drafting documents prepared in connection with an EB-5 offering.

The SEC likes to hold out gatekeeper-violators of securities laws as examples for an industry. This is no consolation for the attorneys facing sanctions and disgorgement, but it does explain to some degree how the SEC prioritizes investigations and why immigration lawyers are of interest. Attorneys with high profiles in the EB-5 industry who are involved in producing investors for regional centers or who engage in marketing should be concerned. And so should the attorney who takes a finder’s fee from a regional center one single time. The SEC also pursues “minor violations” particularly by gatekeepers to set an example for an industry. One of the attorneys in today’s proceedings had received $37,500 in finder’s fees. This was sufficient for the SEC to pursue administrative proceedings and sanctions.

Transaction-based compensation is often not difficult for the SEC to trace and later prove

The DNA of these three recent cases is virtually identical, with the SEC finding that each of the attorneys earned transaction-based compensation for steering clients to specific EB-5 regional center projects. The SEC ordered disgorgement of unlawfully earned commissions along with interest in all three cases. One of the three attorneys also incurred a civil monetary penalty of $30,000. He is alleged to have had commissions transferred to a foreign bank account despite the fact that his business is U.S. based. In the case of one of the other attorneys, he had a “Referral Services Agreement” in place with the EB-5 regional center that paid him compensation. This means that these attorneys left their fingerprints in very identifiable places, which SEC investigators love. Continue Reading Three Immigration Lawyers Sanctioned by the SEC for Brokering EB-5 Investments

On August 11, 2016, USCIS published new processing times for I-829 petitions. The news is not good for EB-5 investors. USCIS is now taking in excess of 21 months to adjudicate I-829 petitions. This means that EB-5 investors may wait more than one or even two years for final approval of an I-829 from USCIS. The delays are unconscionable.

For those less familiar with EB-5 terminology, the term I-829 refers to the form number of the petition that an EB-5 investor files within 90 days of the expiration of his or her conditional green card status. An investor’s I-829 is supported by proof that, among other things, there has been sufficient job creation to support his or her green card case. At the I-829 stage of the process, an investor must also evidence that his or her investment has been sustained. For thousands of investors, what should be a relatively ministerial process of verifying facts has turned into a bottleneck. Continue Reading I-829 Delays Reach All-Time Record: Thousands of EB-5 Investors in Limbo at USCIS

According to data recently supplied by USCIS, there are more than 20,000 I-526 petitions pending adjudication as of the end of March 2016. This is a massive backlog of cases. What are the implications of this backlog to investors, and will processing times improve?

What does this backlog mean for EB-5 investors?

The current I-526 backlog translates into long delays for I-526 decisions by USCIS. In other words, many if not most investors may wait close to or beyond 16 months for their I-526 cases to be approved.

This backlog of I-526 petitions is unprecedented in the short history of the EB-5 Investor Visa Program. If you contrast the current statistics with the data supplied for past fiscal years, the increase in the number of pending EB-5 cases at USCIS is striking. At the end of fiscal year 2015, there were more than 17,000 pending EB-5 petitions at USCIS. Fiscal year 2012 closed with just 5,000 pending EB-5 petitions in the hands of adjudicators. That is a massive increase in a compressed period of time.

USCIS simply isn’t properly staffed to manage this increase in the agency’s EB-5 caseload. The agency’s backlog has quadrupled since 2012. In light of this shift in I-526 backlogs, EB-5 investors need to be prepared to wait well beyond one year for a petition to even be assigned to an officer at USCIS. Continue Reading I-526 Processing Delays Expected to Continue into 2017

In 2012, we wrote about the risky business of immigration lawyers accepting finder’s fees for selling limited partnership interests in EB-5 deals. For the past several years, securities law violations have been part and parcel of many EB-5 regional center transactions. Now the tide appears to be turning. How? Continue Reading SEC Nabs Immigration Lawyers Acting as Unregistered Brokers, Orders Fines and Disgorgement

The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino are going to result in an increase in security checks for visa applicants at U.S. consular posts. We also anticipate Congress to at least review the Visa Waiver Program for potential changes, based on President Obama’s address to the nation. Referencing one of the San Bernardino terrorists who allegedly had come to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program, Obama called for Congress to look carefully at the rules of the program. Continue Reading EB-5 Investors: Expect More Hassles Entering the United States

While issuers and regional centers are the focus of EB-5 litigation right now and into the foreseeable future, if you are taking direct proceeds as a borrower in a transaction facilitated by an EB-5 regional center or issuer you need to have legal advice on the scope of your liability in a deal. Many large-scale EB-5 transactions are driven by a regional center that is facilitating a loan to a project or EB-5 borrower. Borrowers in such transactions often operate under the misconception that they are insulated from liability because they are not an issuer, and that this “insulation” means no accountability to the SEC or to investors.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The SEC may name an EB-5 borrower in a transaction as a relief defendant in a civil action against a regional center or issuer. An asset freeze, disgorgement and reputational harm, among others, are all possible outcomes if a borrower receives direct proceeds of a toxic EB-5 deal that lands in litigation. The SEC also has the power to sue persons who aid and abet a violation of the securities laws. In the EB-5 context, where borrowers may accompany a regional center on a roadshow or participate in marketing efforts, caution is warranted.

Borrowers in EB-5 transactions should have protective indemnification agreements in place before receiving EB-5 proceeds; review offering materials to ensure the accuracy of any facts represented to investors about their projects; know the background and experience of the EB-5 regional center before closing a deal; and have separate counsel from the EB-5 regional center controlling the offering process.

EB-5 regional centers and issuers take heed. The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) is pursuing litigation against parties in several EB-5 deals. We expect the SEC to increase efforts to prosecute regional centers, issuers and broker dealers who don’t play by the rules in the EB-5 investment industry. Mintz Levin’s EB-5 Financing Practice just released an alert on limiting securities litigation risks in EB-5 transactions. This is go-to reading for anyone in the EB-5 industry. Here are the highlights of the article, along with a few of our thoughts about concerns that borrowers need to have before accepting direct proceeds in loans from EB-5 regional centers. Continue Reading Securities Law Risk Mitigation in EB-5 Offerings

For alleged EB-5 fraudster Lin Zhong there is a cold winter ahead. A deep freeze. As we expected when news of the case recently broke, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) obtained a court order freezing Zhong’s assets as well as those of her company EB-5 Asset Manager LLC. It is alleged that under the guise of the EB-5 regional center program, Zhong raised at least $8.5 million for EB-5 projects.  Zhong is accused of diverting nearly $1 million to purchase luxury personal items such as a boat, a BMW and a Mercedes. Zhong is the latest alleged EB-5 fraudster to be stopped in her tracks by the SEC.

It is clear that the SEC is now focused on prosecuting EB-5 market participants and issuers who violate the antifraud provisions of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5. The allegations here are similar to those alleged in recent cases – the SEC has alleged material misrepresentations and omissions to investors by Zhong.  According to the SEC’s website and recent press release, the Commission also obtained a court order appointing a receiver to administer and manage the business affairs and assets of the company and its subsidiaries for the protection of investors. Continue Reading SEC freezes assets of EB-5 Asset Manager LLC and Alleged Fraudster Lin Zhong