Like Elsa, the Princess in Disney’s classic Frozen, once again the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has utilized its power to freeze. In this case, the freezing of assets. In what has become an increasingly common tactic, the SEC successfully sought to freeze assets of several individuals and corporate entities in a complaint it recently brought alleging fraud in connection with securities offerings for projects under the EB-5 immigration program. As we have reported previously, particularly in the EB-5 space, the SEC has in recent years utilized the asset freeze as an enforcement tool. The EB-5 program allows foreign investors to apply for green cards in exchange for a minimum $500,000 investment in a job-creating enterprise. Continue Reading “The cold never bothered me anyway!” SEC again uses its power to freeze an alleged EB-5 scam
Our colleague Rebecca Zeidel just published a terrific blog posting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kokesh v. SEC, in which the Court imposed a five-year statute of limitations on agency-sought disgorgement in SEC enforcement actions. This decision resolved a Circuit split and definitively categorized disgorgement as a statutory “penalty” under 28 U.S.C. § 2462. That statute applies a five-year limitations period to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.”
This development is relevant in the EB-5 litigation context, where we see the SEC impose disgorgement in administrative proceedings as one penalty, among others, against issuers or other parties who have engaged in securities fraud or other violations of the securities laws in EB-5 transactions. Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Blocks SEC from Imposing Disgorgement beyond Five-Year Statute of Limitations
Douglas Hauer, Co-Chair of the EB-5 Financing Practice and a Member of the Corporate and Securities and Immigration Practices of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C., is speaking at the North American Securities Administrators Association’s (NASAA) 2016 Corporation Finance Training. The event is taking place November 18-19 at the Westin Oaks Hotel in Houston, TX. Continue Reading Mintz Levin Attorney Douglas Hauer to Speak at NASAA 2016 Corporation Finance Training
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
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
As the EB-5 program continues to expand and regional centers have attracted increasing attention from foreign investors seeking to become permanent lawful U.S. residents, there has been a corresponding increase in regulatory scrutiny of EB-5 investments. The increased attention has resulted in civil lawsuits brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and criminal prosecutions by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
What do a $175,000 Sea Ray yacht, a brand new $100,000 Mercedes Benz S-550 and a $55,000 BMW X5 SUV all have in common? According to the SEC, they were all items purchased by one Lin Zhong (a/k/a Lily Zhong) with money she fraudulently obtained from investors who were told that their funds were being invested in EB-5 real estate development and construction projects. Zhong also purchased with investor funds homes for herself in Poinciana Florida and Worcester, Massachusetts – all while telling investors that 100% of their funds would be used in construction projects and that all investments would be held in escrow until their EB-5 immigration petitions were approved. Continue Reading Life is Larger than Fiction in EB-5 Litigation: SEC Moves For Asset Freeze, Accounting, and Receiver Appointment in Civil Fraud Action in Florida
EB-5 deals present risk for regional centers, issuers and investors.
With the uptick in EB-5 litigation, risk mitigation could not be more important for all stakeholders in an EB-5 transaction.
Hear from Adam Sisitsky, a member of Mintz Levin’s Securities Litigation Practice, on the three D’s of EB-5 risk mitigation: Continue Reading The Three D’s of EB-5 Risk Mitigation [VIDEO]
On August 25, 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil fraud suit against Lobsang Dargey, a Bellevue, Washington-based real estate developer and alleged fraudster, who also happens to be a brother-in-law of tennis star Andre Agassi. Dargey had ventured into the EB-5 Program as a developer and regional center owner, securing designation by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for two regional centers, Path America SnoCo and Path America KingCo. The complaint is relevant to both investors and regional centers in the EB-5 industry, as well as to lawyers advising issuers in EB-5 offerings. Continue Reading Failure to Investigate Could Mean “Game-Set-and-Match” for EB-5 Investors: SEC Case against Brother-in-Law of Tennis Star Andre Agassi Shows Risk for Would-be Immigrant Investors