How SEC Investigations Work: Process, Timeline, and Causes

You never want to be in the situation where the SEC is investigating you, but when they do, you must act quickly and decisively to minimize any harm. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most common reasons why the SEC might initiate an investigation into a company or individual, the SEC investigation process, how long SEC investigations take, and some steps you can take to protect yourself if it happens to you. What Causes an SEC Investigation? The SEC’s Division of Enforcement is in charge of investigating alleged breaches of securities law. Unregistered securities offerings, insider trading, accounting errors, negligence, market manipulation, and fraud are all common reasons for SEC investigations. Need Legal Help? Let’s talk. or, give us a ring at 561-338-0037. The SEC may also investigate a company or individual if they receive a complaint from someone who has been harmed by the alleged violations. Note: If you are under investigation by the SEC, it’s generally safe to assume that you’re under investigation for or a witness to securities fraud. There are Two Types of SEC Investigations: The SEC can conduct two types of investigations: formal and informal. Informal Investigations: For a vast majority of cases, investigations are informal. An informal investigation is less formal and typically occurs when the SEC has general concerns about a company or individual’s compliance with securities laws. The focus of an informal investigation is broader, and the SEC typically relies on information provided by the company or individual under investigation as well as other sources such as whistleblowers. This means that the SEC staff will review the facts and evidence available to them and make a determination as to whether or not an enforcement action is warranted. Following an informal investigation, the SEC may choose to take no action, issue a warning letter, or file a formal enforcement action. Formal Investigation: A formal investigation is more serious and typically occurs when the SEC has specific evidence that a violation of securities laws has occurred. In a formal investigation, the SEC will often use its subpoena power to obtain documents and other information from the company or individual being investigated. The SEC generally reserves formal investigations for more-important matters involving large sums of money or a large number of investors. However, this isn’t always the case, and Enforcement Division staff may elect to pursue a formal inquiry in any situation where it appears that administrative, civil, or criminal fines might be appropriate. All SEC investigations are conducted privately. Facts and evidence obtained by the SEC during an investigation are not made public unless and until the SEC files a formal enforcement action. What Happens When You are Under Investigation? First, you will NOT be told you are under investigation by the SEC. But you will likely receive a letter from the SEC’s Division of Enforcement with a Subpoena requesting documents and/or requiring you to give testimony. At that point, you can request the opportunity to view the Formal Order of Investigation with a summary of the investigation underway. It is a very general description and rarely identifies who or what conduct is under investigation. In most cases, it is important to respond to the SEC as quickly as possible and to provide them with all of the relevant information. Failure to respond or provide false information can lead to civil and criminal penalties. It is strongly advised that you seek legal representation if you are under investigation by the SEC before you respond to the SEC’s letter. An experienced securities defense lawyer will be able to help you navigate the process and protect your rights. What are the Risks of Not Responding to an SEC Investigation? If you do not respond to an SEC investigation, the SEC may take enforcement action against you. This could include filing a lawsuit against you or seeking a court order requiring you to take specific actions such as making restitution to investors or ceasing and desisting from certain activities. The SEC may also seek to bar you from working in the securities industry or from participating in penny stock offerings if you are a registered person. How Long Do SEC Investigations Take? The length of an SEC investigation can vary depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. However, in most cases, the SEC will take a many months to investigate a company or individual before making a decision on whether to take enforcement action. Need Legal Help? Let’s talk. or, give us a ring at 561-338-0037. Of course there are factors outside of the SEC’s control that can also affect the length of an investigation, such as the availability of witnesses or the need to gather evidence from foreign jurisdictions. You can learn more about the SEC’s enforcement process by visiting the SEC’s website. What Happens After an SEC Investigation? After an SEC investigation, the Enforcement Division will decide whether to take enforcement action. Of course, the ideal case (when the SEC has started an investigation) is to conclude the inquiry with no evidence of wrongdoing. However, if the SEC’s Enforcement Division decides to take action, the division will file a lawsuit in federal court. The SEC’s litigation is generally public, and the agency will typically issue a press release announcing its action. The press release will include a summary of the allegations and the relief being sought by the SEC. Defendants in SEC lawsuits have the right to be represented by an attorney and to file a response to the SEC’s allegations. The litigation will proceed through the court system, and a final judgment will be issued by the court. What’s a Wells Notice? If the SEC decides that they want to pursue a formal enforcement action against you, they will send you what is known as a Wells Notice. A Wells Notice is a formal notification from the SEC that they are considering bringing an enforcement action against you for violating securities law. It gives you an opportunity to respond to the allegations and to provide information in defense of yourself. This notice first comes...

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