Finders Fees and the Consequences for Violations
Posted by Laura Anthony, Esq. on August 24, 2017
Finders Fees and the Consequences for Violations- The SEC is authorized to seek civil penalties and injunctions for violations of the broker-dealer registration requirements. Egregious violations can be referred to the attorney general or Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.
In addition to potential regulatory problems, using an unregistered person who does not qualify for either the statutory or another exemption to assist with the sale of securities may create a right of rescission in favor of the purchasers of those securities. That is a fancy way of saying they may ask for and receive their money back.
Section 29(b) of the Exchange Act, provides in pertinent part:
Every contract made in violation of any provision of this title or of any rule or regulation thereunder… the performance of which involves the violation of, or the continuance of any relationship or practice in violation of, any provision of this title or any rule or regulation thereunder, shall be void (1) as regards the rights of any person who, in violation of any such provision, rule or regulation, shall have made or engaged in the performance of any such contract…
In addition to providing a defense by the issuing company to paying the unlicensed person, the language can be interpreted as voiding the contract for the sale of the securities to investors introduced by the finder. The SEC interprets its rules and regulations very broadly, and so do the courts and state regulators. Under federal law the rescission right can be exercised until the later of three years from the date of issuance of the securities or one year from the date of discovery of the violation. Accordingly, for a period of at least three years, an issuer that has utilized an unlicensed finder could have a contingent liability on their books and as a disclosure item. The existence of this liability can deter potential investors and underwriters and create issues in any going public transaction.
In addition, SEC laws specifically require the disclosure of compensation and fees paid in connection with a capital raise. A failure to make such disclosure and to make it clearly and concisely is considered fraud under Section 10b-5 of the Securities Act of 1933. Fraud claims are generally brought against the issuing company and its participating officers and directors.
Further, most underwriters and serious investors require legal opinion letters at closing, in which the attorney for the company opines that all previously issued securities were issued legally and in accordance with state and federal securities laws and regulations. Obviously an attorney will not be able to issue such an opinion following the use of an unlicensed or non-exempted person. In addition to the legal ramifications themselves and even with full disclosure and the time for liability having passed, broker-dealers and underwriters may shy away from engaging in business transactions with an issuer with a history of overlooking or circumventing securities laws.
Historically, it was the person who had acted in an unlicensed capacity who faced the greatest regulatory liability; however, in the past ten years that has changed. The SEC now prosecutes issuers under Section 20(e) for aiding and abetting violations. The SEC has found it more effective and a better deterrent to prosecute the issuing company than an unlicensed person who is here today and gone tomorrow.
The payment of finders’ fees is a complex topic requiring careful legal analysis on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis. No agreements for the payment or receipt of such fees should be entered into or performed without seeking the advice of competent legal counsel.
I am a strong advocate for a regulatory framework that includes (i) limits on the total amount finders can introduce in a 12-month period; (ii) antifraud and basic disclosure requirements that match issuer responsibilities under registration exemptions; and (iii) bad-actor prohibitions and disclosures which also match issuer requirements under registration exemptions. I would even advocate for a potential general securities industry exam for individuals as a precondition to acting as a finder, without related licensing requirements. For example, FINRA, together with the SEC Division of Trading and Markets, could fashion an exam similar to the new FINRA Securities Industry Essentials Exam.