As we have previously reported, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has taken a significantly heightened interest in whether people who engage in certain promotional activities on behalf of issuers of securities should be subject to regulation as a broker dealer.  The David Blass speech of April 5, 2013 put hedge fund general partners on notice that certain sales practices undertaken by hedge fund personnel may require registration as a broker dealer.  The SEC has recently followed up this guidance with enforcement action.

On May 15, 2014, the SEC  charged a Tiburon, California based securities salesman for selling millions of dollars in oil-and-gas investments without being registered with the SEC as a broker-dealer or associated with a registered broker-dealer.  The defendant, Behrooz Sarafraz, agreed to settle the SEC charges by paying disgorgement of his commissions, prejudgment interest, and a penalty for a total of more than $22 million.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco, Sarafraz acted as the primary salesman on behalf of TVC Opus I Drilling Program LP and Tri-Valley Corporation, which were based in Bakersfield, California.   From February 2002 to April 2010, these companies raised more than $140 million for their oil-and-gas drilling venture.  While Sarafraz was raising money for these entities, he was not associated with any broker-dealer registered with the SEC.  The SEC also alleged that Sarafraz worked full-time locating investors for the Opus and Tri-Valley oil-and-gas ventures.  He described the investment program to investors and recommended they purchase Opus partnership interests or securities of Tri-Valley and its affiliated entities.  In return, Sarafraz received commissions that ranged from seven to 17 percent of the sales proceeds that he and members of a sales network generated.  The SEC alleges that Opus and Tri-Valley paid Sarafraz approximately $18.3 million in sales commissions.  He paid approximately $1.9 million to others as referral fees and kept the remaining $16.4 million for himself.

For the two companies for which Sarafraz raised money, this could be just the beginning of the process.  If investors have lost money or would otherwise seek to unwind these transactions, it is possible that the investors could sue the companies and Sarafrax for rescission.  Typically, in a rescission recovery case, the plaintiffs who purchased through the unregistered broker can receive the higher of the current market price of the price that they originally paid for the securities.  Hedge funds and other private companies that use solicitors should take note.

The SEC also charged New York-based Rafferty Capital Markets with illegally facilitating trades for another firm that was not registered as a broker-dealer as required under the federal securities laws.  According to the SEC’s order instituting settled administrative proceedings, Rafferty agreed to serve as the broker-dealer of record in name only for approximately 100 trades in asset-backed securities that were actually introduced by the unregistered firm.  While Rafferty held the necessary licenses and processed the trades, it was the unregistered firm that managed the business.  Five of the firm’s employees became registered representatives with Rafferty but they performed their work in the offices of the unregistered firm, which retained sole authority over their trading decisions and determined their compensation.  Rafferty had no involvement in the trading or compensation decisions while the registered representatives executed the trades through Rafferty’s systems on behalf of the unregistered firm.  Based on the agreement, Rafferty kept 15 percent of the compensation generated by these trades and sent the remaining balance to the unregistered firm.

The SEC’s order found that Rafferty willfully violated Federal securities laws and also willfully aided and abetted and caused the unregistered broker-dealer’s violation of the registration provisions of the Securities Exchange Act.  Rafferty consented to a cease-and-desist order that censures the firm and requires the disgorgement of $637,615 as well as payment of $82,011 in prejudgment interest and a $130,000 penalty.  This case should serve as a cautionary tale for hedge fund and other private fund managers that seek to hire sales people who construct sham arrangements with a broker dealer in order to appear to be in compliance with the broker dealer registration provisions.  Expect more of these types of action from the SEC in the near future.