Lawyer disciplined for involvement in investment scheme

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The SEC is not “another jurisdiction” for the purpose of reciprocal discipline

On June 27, the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended a lawyer for eighteen months based on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges*. While this case has nothing to do with dirt law, I bring it to the attention of South Carolina lawyers because they often find themselves in the position of forming and representing limited liability companies (LLCs).

SECThe South Carolina lawyer, John Kern, helped form and served as general counsel for Ventures Trust II LLC and Face-Off Acquisitions, LLC, two of the LLCs used in a fraudulent investment scheme perpetrated by Craig Berkman. Berkman fraudulently raised around $13.2 million from approximately 120 investors by selling memberships in the LLCs he controlled. Unfortunately for these investors, Berkman was subject to a $23 million judgment in Oregon, in connection with another fraudulent investment scheme, and was also facing bankruptcy in Florida. Berkman began to use some of the funds from his new ventures to pay his bankruptcy obligations in Florida, and the SEC got involved.

In 2014, Kern signed an offer of settlement and consented to an entry by the SEC of an order imposing sanctions against him. SEC findings included that (1) Kern willfully aided and abetted the fraudulent conduct of Berkman; (2) Kern was ordered to disgorge fees of around $235,000 and to pay a fine of $100,000; (3) Kern was barred from associating with brokers and investment advisors; and (4) Kern consented to being denied the privilege of practicing law before the SEC.

South Carolina’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) filed formal charges in 2016 and argued that the SEC is “another jurisdiction” under the Rule 29(e), which deals with conclusiveness of misconduct adjudications against lawyers in other jurisdictions. The Supreme Court found that the SEC is not a jurisdiction for the purposes of reciprocal discipline, but found that Kern was guilty of providing false information in statements to others.

Kern falsely assured Berkman’s bankruptcy attorney that none of the funds used to settle Berkman’s bankruptcy obligations were derived from Ventures II. Kern also issued a false memorandum to investors in Ventures II to the effect that their funds were secure and were not part of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Berkman.

Kern’s primary defense in his South Carolina disciplinary proceedings was that he was totally unaware of Berkman’s malfeasance, and that as soon as he became aware, he resigned as general counsel for the LLCs and encouraged a principal in the companies to act as a whistleblower to the SEC. Kern argued that he had no dishonest or selfish motive, did not profit from his misconduct and showed remorse for the harm caused to investors. The Court said that it took these mitigating factors into consideration in imposing sanctions.

Professor John Freeman, who taught ethics to many of us, was qualified as an expert in the case and testified that when a lawyer acts as general counsel for a private securities company, he or she must exercise due diligence to ensure money is invested for the represented purposes.

Despite the fact that the SEC is not considered by the South Carolina Supreme Court to be a jurisdiction for the purposes of reciprocal jurisdiction against attorneys, this attorney was suspended for eighteen months because of his conduct that led to charges before the SEC.

The lesson to us is clear. Be careful in forming and representing LLCs and use proper due diligence in statements made to the investors in those entities. Lacking a dishonest motive is not enough to protect lawyers from discipline.

*In the Matter of Kern, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27820 (June 27, 2018)

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Feds extend timeframe of FinCEN order

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

In early 2016, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

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At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Geographic Targeting Orders were updated again beginning March 21, 2018, and extended to September 16, 2018

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion!

Mortgages without appraisals?

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Fannie and Freddie are relaxing their rules!

Government-chartered entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are relaxing their decades-old appraisal rules to allow some refinances and, more significantly, some sales to close without new appraisals. Both entities indicate they will only permit loans to close without appraisals in situations where they have substantial data on the properties in question as well as the local real estate markets.

How will the new plans work? Lenders will submit loan files to either Fannie or Freddie for underwriter analysis. The entities’ proprietary systems (automated valuation models) will be employed to determine whether sufficient valuation data is available to support the requested loan amounts.  These systems are said to be depositories of millions of prior appraisal reports and “proprietary analytics” that allow for computer-driven valuations of properties. If the system determines that no appraisal is required, the borrower will be given the choice of proceeding without an appraisal or coming out of pocket for an appraisal.

Should local residential contracts be tweaked? Should lawyers advise their purchaser clients to obtain appraisals?  We will have to cross those particular bridges.

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This seems reminiscent of the situation in the early 1990s where title insurance companies limited their requirements for current surveys. Residential lenders were given the survey coverage they required without the cost of updated surveys. Lawyers were left holding the bag, so to speak, to advise their purchaser clients of the benefits of surveys and to encourage them to incur the cost despite the fact that there was suddenly no lender or title company requirement.

Lawyers are not typically involved in residential transactions prior to loan approval, however, so it is entirely possible they will not be involved with the question of whether to obtain appraisals unless astute and cautious buyers specifically seek advice up front.

Fannie and Freddie have been quietly phasing in this new process for months and indicate appraisals will continue to be required for most loans. Fannie estimated that only ten percent of loans were eligible to close without appraisals at the inception of its program for refinances. That percentage is likely to be smaller for sales.

Both entities require at least twenty percent equity to qualify. Fannie’s program includes single-family homes, second homes and condominiums.  Freddie’s program is limited to single-family, single-unit primary residences. Homes in disaster areas, manufactured homes, and homes valued at more than $1 million will not qualify. The borrower’s credit scores and credit worthiness will also be considered.

Real estate agents are likely to love this new technology-based innovation. It will save money as well as time. Appraisers (like surveyors in the 1990s) will not be happy as this program is phased in.

What do you think? Are appraisals a good thing?  Will foregoing appraisals be akin to the “no doc” and “low doc” mortgages that helped lead us to the financial crisis of 2008? Are actual inspections by trained human beings of the interiors of residences necessary to establish value? Let’s see how this plays out!

CFPB rules have been revised

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Are we now free to share Closing Disclosures with real estate agents?

cfpb-logoThe CFPB recently issued amendments to its rules governing residential loan closings, but it did not settle the debate about whether Closing Disclosures can be shared with real estate agents. Traditionally, real estate agents were provided settlement statements both before closings, to give them the opportunity to explain the numbers to their buyer and seller clients, and after closings, to enable them to close MLS listings.

Since we have been operating under the CFPB rules and generating Closing Disclosures, we have struggled with the insistence on the part of real estate agents to receive those documents and the reluctance on the part of lenders to share them.  Most of us have resolved this conflict by providing real estate agents with separate settlement statements, such as ALTA’s Settlement Statements, which are similar to our prior HUD-1 Settlement Statements. It took us awhile to figure out that Closing Disclosures are not traditional closing statements and do not facilitate disbursement. Once we realized separate settlement statements are actually needed to fully inform borrowers, sellers and real estate agents, this issue became less important.

The CFPB has indicated it has received many questions about sharing Closing Disclosures with third parties. The amendment says:

“(T)the Bureau notes that such sharing of the Closing Disclosure may be permissible currently to the extent that it is consistent with (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) and Regulation P and is not barred by applicable State law. However, the Bureau does not believe that expansion of the scope of such permissible sharing would, in this rulemaking, be germane to the purposes of Regulation Z.”

Lenders will likely continue to refuse to allow sharing of Closing Disclosures in light of this clear-as-mud directive. Most lenders currently state that the consumer may provide the Closing Disclosure to real estate agents if he or she chooses to do so. That rule is not likely to change.

One of President Trump’s first official actions affects housing

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The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) announced on January 9 that it planned to reduce mortgage insurance premiums effective January 27. Mortgage insurance protects lenders from borrower defaults and is common where the down payment is less than 20%.

The Democratic view of this issue is that sufficient reserves and four years of economic growth allowed the FHA to pass along some modest savings to consumers. Additionally, the move was viewed as an attempt to help first-time and lower income home buyers to access the market at a time when mortgage rates were rising.

The Republican view is that such reductions put taxpayers at risk by decreasing the funds the FHA has to deal with mortgage defaults. In other words, taxpayers might be at a greater risk for footing the bill for another bailout if FHA’s reserves were reduced.

President Trump’s advisors criticized the Obama administration for adopting new policies as it prepared to leave office. During Dr. Ben Carson’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), FHA’s parent agency, he expressed disappointment that the cut was announced so late in President Obama’s term.

On January 20, shortly after he was sworn in, as one of his first substantive actions, President Trump undid this new policy before it took effect by signing an executive order.

HUD then issued a letter stating that more analysis is needed before changes are made, and the rates will remain the same for the time being.

It appears industry groups may have differing opinions on whether President Trump’s executive order will affect home buying. Will this action reduce opportunities for first-time buyers? Or will it eventually allow FHA’s reserves to be increased to a point where it can offer more services to borrowers? Industry groups will continue to weigh in, and this blog will continue to keep South Carolina dirt lawyers posted on developments.