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Securities and Exchange Commission

Sec Enforcement Authority

The commission enforces the myriad laws and regulations under its jurisdiction in a number of ways. The SEC may seek a court INJUNCTION against acts and practices that deceive investors or otherwise violate securities laws; suspend or revoke the registration of brokers, dealers, investment companies, and advisers who have violated securities laws; refer persons to the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT for criminal prosecution in situations involving criminal FRAUD or other willful violation of securities laws; and bar attorneys, accountants, and other professionals from practicing before the commission.

The SEC may conduct investigations to determine whether a violation of federal securities laws has occurred. The SEC has the power to subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of records anywhere in the United States. Generally, the SEC initially conducts an informal inquiry, including interviewing witnesses. This stage does not usually involve sworn statements or compulsory testimony. If it appears that a violation has occurred, SEC staff members request an order from the commission delineating the scope of a formal inquiry.

Witnesses may be subpoenaed in a formal investigation. A witness compelled to testify or produce evidence is entitled to see a copy of the order of investigation and be accompanied, represented, and advised by counsel. A witness also has the absolute right to inspect the transcript of his or her testimony. Typically the same privileges one could assert in a judicial proceeding, such as the Constitution's FOURTH AMENDMENT prohibition against unreasonable SEARCHES AND SEIZURES and the Fifth Amendment's PRIVILEGE AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION, apply in an SEC investigation. Proceedings are usually conducted privately to protect all parties involved, but the commission may publish information regarding violations uncovered in the investigation. In a private investigation, a targeted person has no right to appear to rebut charges. In a public investigation, however, a person must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and to produce rebuttal testimony or evidence, if the record contains implications of wrongdoing.

When an SEC investigation unearths evidence of wrongdoing, the commission may order an administrative hearing to determine responsibility for the violation and impose sanctions. Administrative proceedings are only brought against a person or firm registered with the SEC, or with respect to a security registered with the commission. Offers of settlement are common. In these cases the commission often insists upon publishing its findings regarding violations.

An administrative hearing is held before an ADMINISTRATIVE LAW judge, who is actually an independent SEC employee. The hearing is similar to that of a nonjury trial and may be either public or private. After the hearing the judge makes an initial written decision containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. If either party requests, or if the commission itself chooses, the commission may review the decision. The SEC must review cases involving a suspension, denial, or revocation of registration. The commission may request oral argument, will study briefs, and may modify the decision, including increasing the sanctions imposed. Possible sanctions in administrative proceedings include censure, limitations on the registrant's activities, or revocation of registration. In 1990 SEC powers were expanded to include the authority to impose civil penalties of up to $500,000, to order disgorgement of profits, and to issue cease and desist orders against persons violating or about to violate securities laws, whether or not the persons are registered with the SEC.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or another applicable circuit court of appeals has jurisdiction to review most final orders from an SEC administrative proceeding. Certain actions by the commission are not reviewable.

The SEC may request an injunction from a federal district court if future securities law violations are likely or if a person poses a continuing menace to the public. An injunction may include a provision that any future violation of law constitutes CONTEMPT of court.

The SEC may request further relief, such as turning over profits or making an offer to rescind the profits gained from an insider trading transaction. In cases of pervasive corporate mismanagement, the SEC may obtain appointment of a receiver or of independent directors and special counsel to pursue claims on behalf of the corporation.

Willful violations may be punished by fines and imprisonment. The SEC refers such cases to

In April 2003, William Donaldson (right), Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, and Eliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general, announce the 1.4 billion dollars settlement of investigations of ten Wall Street firms.

the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. "Willfulness" means only that the defendant intended the act, not that he knew that it was a violation of securities laws.

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