December 01, 2020

The SEC’s CCO Guidance Month

Enforcement Highlights Blog

In a 30-day period, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has released guidance in three ways regarding certain views on the important role and potential liability risks of chief compliance officers (“CCOs”). SEC Commissioner Hester M. Peirce first raised these topics in a speech to the National Society of Compliance Professionals, advocating for greater clarity regarding the SEC’s decisions to impose individual liability on compliance professionals and challenging the wisdom of charging chief compliance officers “based on mere negligence.” Hester M. Peirce, When the Nail Fails—Remarks before the National Society of Compliance Professionals (Oct. 19, 2020). Book-ended thirty days later, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) issued a “Risk Alert” titled OCIE Observations: Investment Adviser Compliance Programs (“OCIE Compliance Risk Alert”). That same day, OCIE Director Peter Driscoll gave a speech that served as the Opening Remarks at National Investment Adviser/Investment Company Compliance Outreach 2020, titled The Role of the CCO – Empowered, Senior and With Authority, Peter Driscoll (Nov. 19, 2020). It is unprecedented for the SEC to discuss this important topic utilizing several platforms in such a short period. Taking notice of this, below we analyze the guidance provided by each. We also observe that the SEC’s focus on the role of compliance is not new but that sometimes the SEC’s support for compliance has not appeared to extend beyond OCIE. Cf. Lori Richards’ (then-OCIE Director) October 2007 Speech “Working Towards a Culture of Compliance: Some Obstacles in the Path” (observing that an effective compliance program required management support, a “seat at the table” for the CCO, adequate compliance staffing relative to the size and risks of the firm’s business, and “tone at the top” from the CEO down); with Luis A Aguilar’s (then SEC Commissioner) June 2015 Speech “The Role of the Chief Compliance Officers Must be Supported” (defending recent SEC enforcement actions against CCOs and explaining that those CCOs acting in “good faith” should not fear the SEC).

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