The SEC, again, makes it clear: all aspects of fee, expense and other arrangements must be disclosed accurately and in detail before commitments are accepted.

The SEC recently announced a settlement with three investment advisor affiliates of The Blackstone Group (the Advisors) that were accused of breaching their fiduciary duty to funds they manage or managed, failing to make necessary disclosure to the funds’ investors and failing to adopt and implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and its rules. The charges leveled against the Advisors centered on conflicts of interest involving monitoring fees and legal fee discounts. At the time the alleged violations occurred, each of the Advisors was an SEC-registered investment advisor. Although the Advisors neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings, they made several changes to existing business practices, agreed to pay the SEC a $10 million penalty and agreed to remit to their funds fees and interest approximating $29 million in response to allegations of violations of Section 206(2) and Section 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act and Rules 206(4)-8 and 206(4)-7 thereunder.

Accelerated Monitoring Fees

According to the SEC, the Advisors entered into monitoring agreements with each portfolio company owned by their funds and received, in addition to the annual management fees paid by their funds, monitoring fees from the portfolio companies. In accordance with the funds’ limited partnership agreements, fifty percent of the Advisors’ monitoring fees was used to offset the annual management fee otherwise payable by the funds. Under certain of the monitoring agreements, in the event of a private sale or initial public offering of a portfolio company, monitoring fees could be accelerated for the remaining years of the agreements’ terms (including extension periods), discounted to present value and paid in advance upon termination of the agreements. Notwithstanding that fifty percent of the accelerated monitoring fees inured to the benefit of the funds and their limited partners, the SEC found the arrangements problematic because the value of the funds’ assets was reduced by the net amount of the accelerated monitoring fee payments when the portfolio companies were sold or taken public, thereby reducing amounts available for distribution to the limited partners.

The SEC was particularly offended by the fact that, in certain instances, fees were accelerated beyond the period during which a fund owned the relevant portfolio company or beyond the period during which services were performed by the Advisors. In addition, the SEC alleged that, although the Advisors disclosed their ability to collect monitoring fees to the funds and the funds’ limited partners before capital was committed to the funds, the Advisors did not disclose the practice of accelerating monitoring fees prior to the time the Advisors received the accelerated fees. The SEC conceded, however, that monitoring fee acceleration was disclosed in distribution notices, quarterly management fee reports and, where there were public offerings of portfolio companies, in SEC filings on Form S-1. The SEC further acknowledged that the funds’ limited partner advisory committees could have objected to acceleration and arbitrated the matter, but never took such action. The problem, according to the SEC, is that, because of the conflict of interest, the Advisors could not effectively consent to the acceleration.

Disparate Discounts on Legal Fees

The Advisors also negotiated a single agreement with legal counsel pursuant to which legal counsel provided services to the funds and the Advisors. According to the SEC, although the funds generated significantly more work than the Advisors, the Advisors received substantially greater discounts than the funds. In addition, the difference in the discounts was not disclosed to the funds, the funds’ advisory committees or limited partners. Again, because of the conflict, the Advisors could not consent effectively.

Takeaways

The findings made and penalties imposed by the SEC in the Blackstone matter highlight the SEC’s disdain of conflicts of interest between advisors and the private funds they manage. More importantly, the matter makes clear the SEC’s intention to go after even the most common business practices in private equity, if the SEC determines that aspects of those practices are not disclosed fully prior to the time capital commitments are accepted. Nothing is sacrosanct.

As was the case with Blackstone, a fund’s private placement memorandum typically discloses that the fund’s management entities and affiliates of those entities may receive fees to which the fund will not be entitled. It also customarily discloses actual and potential conflicts involving fund counsel. The SEC has made clear that those disclosures will not be sufficient if they do not describe all aspects of the relevant conflicts clearly, accurately and completely. Broad and generalized disclosures, even where sophisticated and experienced fund investors are able to discern the nature of the conflict, will not protect against violations of Sections 206(2) and 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act and the rules promulgated under those sections of the Act. Further, disclosures made after investors’ capital commitments are accepted may not be sufficient.

This case also highlights the fact that the SEC will push back against attempts by an SEC-registered investment advisor to limit its fiduciary duty to the funds it advises. In addition, it appears that the SEC will apply Section 206(2) and Section 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act broadly and with a big stick.

As is always the case, cooperation with the SEC in connection with an examination or investigation is critical. In addition, as is evidenced in the Blackstone matter, taking remedial action to eliminate or ameliorate conflicts can be very helpful to an advisor that is under SEC scrutiny and seeking to minimize exposure to punitive action.