By CHARLES E. CAREY

On March 15, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“Commission” or “SEC”) published in the Federal Register for comment proposed amendments to Rule 15c2-12 (the “Rule”) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) that would amend the list of event notices required under the Rule in a manner that, if such amendments are finalized in their proposed form, would likely require issuers of, or “obligated persons” on, publicly offered municipal bonds to provide detailed ongoing disclosure of any new debt, derivatives and other “financial obligations.”

The Rule requires that a broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer (collectively, “dealers”) acting as an underwriter in a primary offering of municipal securities reasonably determine that an issuer or an obligated person has undertaken, in a written agreement or contract for the benefit of holders of the municipal securities, to provide to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) through the MSRB’s Electronic Municipal Market Access (“EMMA”) system, prompt notice of specified events. The proposed amendments would amend the list of such event notices to include;

  • (i) incurrence of a financial obligation of the obligated person, if material, or agreement [by the obligated person] to covenants, events of default, remedies, priority rights, or other similar terms of a financial obligation of the obligated person, any of which affect security holders, if material; and
  • (ii) default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation of the obligated person, any of which reflect financial difficulties.

The proposed amendment provides a broad definition of “financial obligation” which includes: a (i) debt obligation, (ii) lease, (iii) guarantee, (iv) derivative instrument, or (v) monetary obligation resulting from a judicial, administrative, or arbitration proceeding. The “financial obligation” definition excludes traditional municipal bonds which are already covered by the Rule.

In the release accompanying the proposed amendments, the SEC noted that if new financial obligations or new material covenants, events of default or remedies impacted an issuer’s or obligated person’s liquidity and creditworthiness, the credit quality of the issuer’s or obligated person’s outstanding debt could be adversely affected which could impact an investor’s investment decision or other market participant’s credit analysis. Such changes to credit quality could also affect the price of the issuer’s or obligated person’s existing bonds.  Items the SEC referenced as potentially material include debt service coverage ratios, rate covenants, additional bond tests, contingent liabilities, events of default, remedies and priority payment provisions (including structural priority such as balloon payments, for example).

The Commission’s accompanying release stated that the event notice of incurrence of a material financial obligation generally should include a description of the material terms of the financial obligation. According to the release, examples of such material terms include the date of incurrence, principal amount, maturity and amortization, and interest rate, if fixed, or method of computation, if variable (and any default rates); the release states that disclosure of other terms may be appropriate as well, depending on the circumstances.

Unless the proposed amendments are pared back following the comment period, they are likely to result in the required disclosure by issuers or obligated persons of municipal bonds subject to the Rule of virtually all new loan agreements with banks or other private lenders, privately placed municipal bond indentures or loan agreements, swap agreements, real estate leases, and material judgments or arbitration rulings, as issuers and obligated persons are unlikely to shoulder the administrative burden and legal risk associated with determinations of which obligations, and which terms of such obligations, are “material” and which are, and will remain in hindsight, clearly immaterial.  Similarly, for expense and risk reasons, it is more likely that full legal documents will be disclosed versus substantially redacted or summarized versions.

The proposed amendments do not appear to require disclosure of the termination or satisfaction of financial obligations previously disclosed on EMMA as material events; accordingly they may result in the accumulation over time on EMMA of a variety of lengthy loan agreements, indentures, swap agreements and the like with no clear way for bondholders or brokers accessing EMMA to determine whether the relevant obligations and the related agreements continue in effect. Such overdisclosure may limit the pool of investors with respect to the obligations of the issuer or obligated person, in that brokers responsible under MSRB Rule G-47 for conveying to customers all material information about the security accessible on EMMA may opt not to do so for securities with EMMA postings that include unwieldy amounts of raw legal documents.

Issuers and obligated persons may also deem the requirement to publicly disclose otherwise private transactions adverse to their business interests. Currently, for example, an issuer or obligated person may negotiate different covenants and different covenant levels with different private lenders, without each lender necessarily having access to the covenants of the other lenders.  If the amendments require the issuer or obligated person to disclose on EMMA the coverage, days cash on hand, interest rates and other material terms of its private loan arrangements, the result over time may be for each new lender to require, in effect, most favored nation status with covenants and other terms at least as tough as the toughest terms previously agreed to by the applicable issuer or obligated group.  Reasonable minds may disagree on whether that should “come with the territory” when an issuer chooses to access the public municipal market, but to date such public disclosure of the details of private transactions has not been required.

The second new event notice, for the occurrence of a default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation of the issuer or obligated person, presents a different judgment call for issuers and obligated persons, as such disclosure is only required if the event “reflects financial difficulties.” Some of the examples cited in the release for subsequent events include monetary or covenant defaults that might result in acceleration of the debt, swap events, such as rating downgrades, which might require the posting of collateral or the payment of a termination payment and changes to the contract rights of the counterparties to financial obligations. Again, it is unlikely that entities subject to such requirements would expend much legal capital on parsing through whether a swap termination event, or even an amendment of loan documents, “reflects financial difficulties”, and the tendency is likely to be towards overdisclosure.

There are additional ambiguities in the proposed amendments. According to the accompanying release, the amendments will only be applicable to continuing disclosure agreements executed after the amendments are finalized, but it is unclear, for example, whether an issuer or obligated person that executes a continuing disclosure agreement governed by the amended Rule will be required to disclose all previously incurred material “financial obligations”, or whether only “financial obligations” incurred following the execution of such an agreement will be subject to such disclosure.  The accompanying release does indicate that the required notice of default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation which reflect financial difficulties would apply with respect to financial obligations previously incurred.

Unlike many of the existing events for which event notices are currently required under the Rule, which occur rarely, incurrence of financial obligations occurs regularly for many issuers and obligated persons. Accordingly, these amendments arguably would constitute the broadest expansion to date of the Rule’s continuing disclosure requirements. They are sure to generate many comments from affected parties before they are finalized.

By CHRISTIE MARTIN and MAXWELL D. SOLET

After two sets of proposed regulations, Treasury and IRS have now released final regulations on the definition of “issue price” for purposes of arbitrage investment restrictions that apply to tax-advantaged bonds (the “Final Regulations”) and it appears that the third time’s the charm. Practitioners are particularly praising the addition of a special rule for determining issue price for competitive sales and clarification on determining issue price for private placements.  The Final Regulations were published in the Federal Register on December 9, 2016 and can be found here.

Several years ago, tax regulators became concerned that the longstanding practice of allowing an issue price to be calculated based on reasonable expectations could lead to abuse in that “reasonably expected” issue prices for bonds sometimes differed from the prices at which bonds were actually being sold to retail investors. A determination by the IRS that the “issue price” has been erroneously calculated can have ramifications for the calculation of arbitrage yield that could ultimately cause loss of tax-advantaged status.  A clear and predictable definition of issue price is therefore essential for the tax-advantaged bond community.

After the first set of proposed regulations, published in the Federal Register on September 16, 2013, caused an uproar in the bond counsel community as being largely unworkable, they were withdrawn and re-proposed on June 24, 2015 (the “2015 Proposed Regulations”). The 2015 Proposed Regulations were subject to a comment period followed by a public hearing.  These Final Regulations build on the 2015 Proposed Regulations with certain changes in response to the public comments.

The Final Regulations look to actual facts as the general rule for determining issue price. Generally, the issue price of bonds is the first price at which a substantial amount (at least 10%) of the bonds is sold to the public.  For bonds issued in a private placement to a single buyer, the Final Regulations clarify that the issue price of the bonds is the price paid by that buyer.

In recognition of the need in the tax-advantaged bond community for certainty as of the sale date (particularly in the case of advance refundings), the Final Regulations offer a special rule in the event a substantial amount of bonds has not been sold to the public as of the sale date. The special rule allows reliance on the initial offering price to the public if certain conditions are satisfied including evidence that the bonds were actually offered at the initial offering price and the written agreement of each underwriter that it will not offer or sell the bonds to any person at a price higher than the initial offering price during the period starting on the sale date and ending on the earlier of (i) the close of the 5th business day after the sale date, or (ii) the date on which the underwriters have sold at least 10% of the bonds to the public at a price that is no higher than the initial offering price.

Procedures for satisfying the conditions for use of this special rule will have to be developed but it is reasonable to expect that changes will need to be made to bond purchase agreements and underwriter selling agreements to comply with these requirements.

The special rule for competitive sales provides that in a competitive sale meeting certain requirements, an issuer may treat the reasonably expected initial offering price to the public as of the sale date as the issue price if the winning bidder certifies that its winning bid was based on this reasonably expected initial offering price as of the sale date. This special issue price rule for competitive sales has been repeatedly requested by practitioners and is a welcome improvement over the prior proposed regulations which treated both negotiated sales and competitive sales in the same manner.

The Final Regulations will be effective for obligations that are sold on or after June 7, 2017 and there is no option to rely upon the Final Regulations with respect to obligations that are sold prior to that date. This delayed effective date should allow bond counsel and underwriters time to develop effective and hopefully uniform procedures and documentation to implement the new regulations.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The linked Mintz Levin client advisory discusses a recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held a “make-whole” optional redemption premium to be due upon a refinancing of corporate debt following its automatic acceleration upon bankruptcy. As noted in the linked advisory, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals also is considering this issue; whether it will come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. One way or another, these decisions will have spillover effect on judicial interpretation of optional redemption provisions in municipal bond transactions, and shine a spotlight upon the discrepancies between optional redemption provisions and other early payment provisions in most municipal bond indentures.

The Third Circuit case involved a debtor, Energy Future Holdings, that filed for bankruptcy for the explicit purpose of refinancing the debt at favorable interest rates while avoiding the hefty make-whole premiums payable upon an optional redemption of the refinanced notes. The bankruptcy court and the federal district court found nothing in the applicable corporate indenture requiring payment of a make-whole following an acceleration.  The Third Circuit reversed, interpreting the applicable corporate indenture’s “optional redemption” provisions to be applicable to the bankruptcy-triggered acceleration followed by repayment of the accelerated debt via a refinancing.

The Third Circuit’s ruling that the repayment following acceleration was an “optional redemption” may have been driven by the factual context of what could be characterized as an “optional bankruptcy” filed solely or primarily to jettison the make-whole payments and lock in lower rate replacement financing. The indenture’s acceleration provision was, as is usual, a remedial provision entirely separate from the indenture’s optional redemption provisions, and, as is typical but not universal, did not specify a premium to be due upon payment of the accelerated debt. Although once the accelerated payment was due there was nothing “optional” about paying it, the appellate panel opined that the payment on the applicable date was “optional” because the issuer chose to file for bankruptcy and chose not to deaccelerate the debt after the bankruptcy triggered the automatic acceleration.  The fact that the bondholders objected to repayment without a make-whole premium also seems to have factored into the court’s determination that the payment by the issuer was “optional.”

The federal appellate court also concluded that under New York law a “redemption” may occur at or before maturity of bonds, and that therefore a “redemption” is not synonymous with a prepayment.  (Indeed, the court suggested that if the make-whole premium had been labeled a “prepayment” premium rather than an “optional redemption” premium, it may have held the make-whole inapplicable, a curious distinction that leads back to the question of under what circumstances payment of an amount that has become due can be deemed optional.) The court disregarded indenture provisions that were technically inconsistent with its determination that the payment was an “optional redemption”, such as the optional redemption requirement of prior notice from the issuer to the bondholders. According to the court: “[The issuer] offers no reason why it could not have complied with [the redemption] notice procedures. In any event, it cannot use its own failure to notify to absolve its duty to pay the make-whole.”

By interpreting the indenture’s optional redemption provisions as applicable to the payment of the accelerated debt, the Third Circuit panel mooted and declined to address the noteholders’ alternate argument that the bankruptcy court should have granted relief from the bankruptcy stay to permit the bondholders to deaccelerate the accelerated debt. Whether that would have provided a more straightforward means of getting to the same result is debatable, as debt generally is deemed accelerated upon a bankruptcy whether or not it is contractually accelerated by the terms of the indenture.

The optional redemption provisions that are typical in municipal bond indentures refute the equivalence found by the Third Circuit between an optional redemption and a payment after acceleration. In contrast to the permissibility in corporate transactions of optional redemption at any time at a make-whole premium, the norm in municipal bond transactions is a lockout period (often 10 years) during which optional redemption is impermissible, followed by a declining fixed optional redemption premium. The fact that municipal indentures permit acceleration whenever there is an event of default, including upon bankruptcy, while imposing a lockout period for optional redemption, suggests that in the municipal bond context there may be less receptiveness by courts to the notion of deemed equivalence between an optional redemption and a payment following acceleration. Accordingly, a court may be less likely to deem an optional redemption premium applicable to a post-acceleration payment on a municipal bond absent express language requiring a premium in a post-acceleration context.

Whether corporate or municipal bonds are at issue, the best way to ensure the intended result is to draft clearly and specifically.  Municipal bond indentures often permit or require bonds to be paid ahead of schedule not only upon acceleration but upon a so-called extraordinary redemption.  These provisions, which typically permit payment ahead of schedule at par, are infrequently deployed relative to optional redemption provisions. Use of bankruptcy as a means of avoiding a prepayment premium is less likely in the municipal context, where the prepayment premium is typically 3% or less versus the often substantially larger make-whole premium, but “default refundings” of municipal bonds have been attempted to circumvent the optional redemption lockout period. There is no difference in the economic impact to a bondholder of early payment, no matter the degree of optionality or lack of optionality from the issuer’s perspective, and whether an early payment premium is expressly provided by the indenture in cases other than “optional redemption” is primarily a risk allocation question.

Drafting acceleration provisions and/or extraordinary redemption provisions in a manner that applies an equivalent premium to the optional redemption premium upon their exercise during the post-lockout period, and a make-whole or other premium during the optional redemption lockout period, provides better protection against any perceived risk of abuse of those provisions than reliance on the courts to figure out what the parties intended and/or is equitable in borderline scenarios.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust puts an end to one of Puerto Rico’s multi-pronged efforts to deleverage itself.  Given the comprehensiveness of the First Circuit’s intermediate appellate opinion upholding the district court’s invalidation of Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act, it was surprising that the highest court took the case, a decision apparently prompted by Justice Sotomayor’s interest in obtaining a reversal.  Comments of some other Justices at oral arguments raised the possibility of Sotomayor attracting a majority for the proposition that the preemption provisions of Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code were inapplicable to Puerto Rico, but in the end only Justice Ginsburg joined what turned out to be Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in a 5-2 ruling upholding the relegation of the Recovery Act to the dustbins of history.

As  we have written previously, the Recovery Act was damaged goods from the beginning: even if the fairly clear preemption argument had not prevailed, the Contracts Clause constraints on non-federal bankruptcy legislation would have severely constrained, if not eliminated, the effective use of  the Recovery Act to break bond contracts. In any event, the Recovery Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision, were  a couple weeks away from being moot, as it appears evident that Congress will pass PROMESA, the federal oversight and debt restructuring legislation that has always constituted the logical legal mechanism for those favoring a less chaotic denouement to Puerto Rico’s debt woes.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

 

A draft of the U.S. Treasury’s proposed debt restructuring legislation began circulating earlier today.  The draft legislation would give Puerto Rico, as well as other U.S. territories, and their municipalities access to U.S. bankruptcy court under a new chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code (so-called “Super Chapter 9”) as well as making Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities (but not Puerto Rico itself) potentially eligible to file for bankruptcy under existing Chapter 9. The prospects for bipartisan cooperation on some form of such legislation appear somewhat more promising than those for the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, but whether this trial balloon will fly remains uncertain.

Some initial observations:

  • The legislation would provide access to bankruptcy to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories (Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands) and their municipalities.
  • The availability of bankruptcy to a territory and/or any “municipality” (i.e. political subdivision, public agency, instrumentality or public corporation of a territory) would be conditioned on the establishment of a Fiscal Reform Assistance Council (Council) at the request of the applicable territory’s Governor.  The Council would consist of 5 members appointed by the President of the United States and would have to approve any such bankruptcy filing.  The Council would have a variety of oversight powers including budget and debt issuance approval powers.
  • The legislation preserves the concept of “special revenue” bonds that benefit from more protective provisions under Chapter 9, such as the continued application of a lien on special revenues to such revenues arising after the filing of the bankruptcy petition, and the inapplicability of the bankruptcy stay to the application of special revenues to payment of debt service on special revenue bonds.  However, the definition of “special revenues” is narrower under the draft legislation than it is under Chapter 9.  As under Chapter 9, “special revenues” include “receipts derived from the ownership, operation, or disposition of projects or systems of the debtor that are primarily used or intended to be used primarily to provide transportation, utility, or other services, including the proceeds of borrowings to finance the projects or systems.”  However, for Puerto Rico and other territories, the draft legislation would not include as “special revenues” “special excise taxes imposed on particular activities or transactions,”  “incremental tax receipts from the benefited area in the case of tax-increment financing,” “other revenues or receipts derived from particular functions of the debtor, whether or not the debtor has other functions” or “taxes specifically levied to finance one or more projects or systems, excluding receipts from general property, sales, or income taxes (other than tax-increment financing) levied to finance the general purposes of the debtor.”  Accordingly, debtors that under the legislation could file under either Chapter 9 or this new chapter would have an incentive to file under this new chapter if their revenues would constitute “special revenues” under Chapter 9 but not under the new chapter.
  • The legislation creates a one-year stay (from the date of establishment of a Council) on (i) the commencement or continuation of any action or proceeding that seeks to enforce a claim against the territory and (ii) the enforcement of a lien on “or arising out of” taxes or assessments owed the territory.  Note that the stay becomes effective without regard to whether a bankruptcy petition is filed.
  • A territory may be a debtor upon the establishment of a Council and approval of the filing by the Council.  A municipality of a territory must, in addition, be specifically authorized by territory law to be a debtor.
  • In contrast to Chapter 9, a debtor need not be insolvent in order to be eligible to file for bankruptcy under the proposed new chapter.
  • A territory and its municipalities may file bankruptcy petitions and plans of adjustment jointly.
  • If the debtor is a territory, the presiding judge in the bankruptcy is appointed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  If the debtor is a municipality filing separately from a territory, the presiding judge is appointed by the chief judge of the applicable federal circuit court of appeals (the 1st Circuit, in the case of Puerto Rico).
  • Among the various conditions for confirmation of a plan, noteworthy conditions include that “the plan does not unduly impair the claims of any class of pensioners.”  The draft legislation does not define what is meant by “unduly.”
  • The legislation provides a limited degree of protection for Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds, including as a plan approval condition that “if feasible, the plan does not unduly impair” the claims of holders of the territory’s general obligation bonds that are “identified in applicable nonbankruptcy law as having a first claim on available territory resources.”   Notably, this protection is provided “if feasible” whereas there is no feasibility requirement on the protection of pensioner claims.  Again, the protection of general obligation bonds, “if feasible” is against being “unduly” impaired, without clarity as to what constitutes undue impairment.  Oddly, the implication is that general obligation bonds can be “unduly impaired” if it is not feasible to “duly” impair them.
  • The draft legislation makes many but not all of the general provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, many but not all of the provisions of Chapter 9, and some of the provisions of Chapter 11, particularly those relating to plan confirmation,  applicable to a bankruptcy involving a territory or a territorial municipality.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

A few reactions to today’s oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit regarding the validity of Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act:

  • On the three judge panel, Chief Judge Lynch seemed prepared to uphold the lower court decision invalidating the Recovery Act; she suggested  that Congress’s amendment of the Bankruptcy Code to eliminate the Chapter 9 eligibility of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities could be interpreted as reflecting Congressional intent that Congress, and not Puerto Rico, should determine how to deal with Puerto Rico’s municipal insolvencies.  Judge Torruella seemed more sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s arguments that the statutory language does not articulate any such intent, that there is no legislative history as to the rationale for the removal of Puerto Rico from Chapter 9 eligibility, and that Congressional intent to preempt Puerto Rico’s use of its police power to enact bankruptcy legislation addressing a fiscal crisis cannot be assumed absent affirmative evidence of such intent.  The third judge on the panel, Judge Howard, asked fewer questions, but asked some pointed ones relating to the potential severability of certain provisions of the Recovery Act.  At the end of the arguments, Chief Judge Lynch characterized the case as an important one and pledged that the court would “work hard” on its decision.
  • On the basis of the judges’ questions, it seems more likely that the panel will uphold the lower court’s decision than that it will reverse it, although the decision may be a close one.  It is possible that the court will remand the case back to the District Court with instructions to determine whether provisions of the Recovery Act that do not impact nonconsenting creditors can be salvaged by severing those that do (versus invalidating the entire Recovery Act), but it is questionable that such a statute, and such an exercise, would be of any utility.
  • Either way, there is a good chance that the First Circuit’s opinion will turn out to be a way station on a longer road, the next segment of which will be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The appellants pressed their arguments that, read literally, Section 903 of the Bankruptcy Code is only applicable in situations involving a Chapter 9 debtor, which Puerto Rico instrumentalities by definition cannot be, and that the lower court therefore misconstrued Section 903 in holding its restrictions on nonfederal bankruptcy statutes applicable to Puerto Rico. The oral arguments then focused primarily on whether a literal interpretation of Section 903 as inapplicable to Puerto Rico would or would not lead to absurd results and/or results that Congress could not have intended, and on what Congressional intent can be inferred (given little, if any, applicable legislative history) from the chronology of revisions to provisions of federal bankruptcy statutes impacting the inclusion or exclusion from federal bankruptcy eligibility of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other territories.  Each side construed the legislative chronology as clearly supporting their clients’ views of whether Congress’s ultimate exclusion of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility was or wasn’t intended to leave Congress with the sole power to enact any bankruptcy statute for such excluded instrumentalities.  When Judge Torruella asserted that it would be highly unusual for Congress to leave Puerto Rico in a “no man’s land” with no recourse to any bankruptcy process, Chief Judge Lynch countered that perhaps Congress did not intend to leave Puerto Rico’s municipalities in limbo forever, but that it might take time for Congress to decide what approach to take.
  • Addressing arguments by the appellees that it would make no sense for Congress to eliminate Puerto Rico’s Chapter 9 eligibility while permitting Puerto Rico to “xerox Chapter 9 and make it worse” through a statute such as the Recovery Act, appellants’ counsel reminded the judges that Puerto Rico would be subject to substantial federal law constraints, such as the contracts clause, that would not be applicable in a Chapter 9 proceeding.   That is accurate, and brings to the fore the question of whether, even if Puerto Rico were to persuade the First Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court that Section 903 does not preempt the Recovery Act or invalidate its key provisions, it will have done itself any favors.  Although the contracts clause is not impregnable, it sets a high bar for a public instrumentality’s restructuring of its own debts.  The Section 903 litigation is only the first salvo in an armada of facial and as applied legal assaults that would face any Puerto Rico issuer attempting to break its bond contracts.  Puerto Rico clearly believes that having a Recovery Act gives it more leverage in creditor negotiations than not having it, but any meaningful restructuring under the Recovery Act might well be legally ineffectual.  Whatever happens to the Recovery Act, Puerto Rico needs to find other ways to address its fiscal issues.

By JOHN REGIER and BRETON LEONE-QUICK

Last week, the National Association of Bond Lawyers held its 13th Annual Tax and Securities Law Institute.  Some of the panels included current and former employees of the SEC who spoke on several of the more notable recent developments with respect to enforcement actions in the Municipal Securities space:

1)  The SEC is policing negligence.  Peter Chan, a former staff member of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, acknowledged that suspicion of recklessness is no longer seen by the Staff as a prerequisite for opening an SEC investigation of an issuer – negligence is sufficient.  He noted how “people walking in a fog can cause as much harm as people conspiring to do wrong.” Chan also cited SEC Chairman White’s “broken windows” strategy in support of this practice, and said that the MCDC Initiative is a prime example. However, Chan also acknowledged that the SEC is not likely to bring a case if an issuer has followed sound disclosure policies and procedures and engaged in thoughtful deliberations, even if the SEC questions the accuracy of statements made in the Official Statement.

2)  Exploration of Allen Park and control person liability.  During one of the panels, Mark Zehner, Deputy Chief of the Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pension Division Unit, spoke at some length about the Allen Park, Michigan case in which the SEC, for the first time, charged a municipal official (the mayor of the city) as a “controlling person” under Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act.  Mr. Zehner noted that the SEC has a lot of experience with control person liability, and has brought more than one thousand such cases in the private sector. From his presentation, it appeared as if one of the reasons why the SEC chose to assert a Section 20(a) claim in the Allen Park case was the somewhat more flexible standard for proving control person liability that exists in the Sixth Circuit.  Mr. Zehner noted that the SEC has a lot of ways to hold someone liable (e.g., aiding and abetting) without having to resort to Section 20(a) liability and that there is a good faith exception to control person liability written right into the statute. Reading between the lines, it appears as if the SEC believed they had proof that Allen Park’s mayor was complicit in the alleged fraud and they had an opportunity to use control person liability in a way that would make headlines and create a deterrent for other municipal officials around the country.

3)  Update on the MCDC initiative.  LeeAnn Gaunt, Chief of the Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit, spoke at some length about the MCDC Initiative. She did not disclose the number of reports the SEC received, but from her comments it appears as if the SEC received a substantial number of them.  She explained that the Staff is dealing with the broker-dealer submissions first, but are cross-checking to see if issuers reported the same transactions. Settlement orders will be released in batches so as not to stigmatize individual broker-dealers. The orders will identify two or three types of material failures but will not identify issuers or transactions. The broker-dealers will be given two weeks to sign the papers and return them. Ms. Gaunt did not commit to a timetable as to when this would occur, but implied that there would likely be several waves of orders during this calendar year. Every party that self-reported will receive a response from the SEC at some point. Issuers who were reported by broker-dealers but did not self-report will not necessarily hear from the SEC.

By Len Weiser-Varon

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently settled the first securities fraud charges brought against a municipal official alleging “control person” status under the federal securities laws.  The SEC’s settlement with the former mayor of the city of Allen Park, Michigan bars him from participating in future securities offerings and imposes a $10,000 penalty. A city administrator also was charged and barred from participation in future securities offerings

The SEC’s enforcement actions, brought against the city and the two city officials, alleged that the offering documents for a “double-barreled” general obligation bond issue contained false and misleading statements.  In particular, the SEC alleged that the offering documents failed to disclose adverse developments relating to a proposed public-private transaction for a film studio project to be located on land purchased with the bond proceeds; the project was not consummated, leading to financial difficulties that caused the state of Michigan to appoint an emergency manager for the city.  The bonds issued for the project were rated A by S&P and subsequently downgraded to BB+, and recent audited financial statements for the city have carried a going concern qualification.

The enforcement action against the city was brought under  Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, which permits administrative action by the SEC for negligent conduct, and under SEC Rule 10b-5, which permits administrative action by the SEC as well as a private right of action by affected investors, but requires proof of “scienter”, or an intent to deceive (which has been interpreted to include highly unreasonable conduct or recklessness.)

More notably, the SEC charged the mayor as a “control person” under Section 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act, under which any person who directly or indirectly “controls” another person found liable for a violation of the Securities Exchange Act or any regulation thereunder is jointly and severally liable, to the same extent as the controlled person, to any person to whom the controlled person is liable.  Liability as a “control person” can be avoided if the “control person” establishes that he or she acted in good faith and did not directly or indirectly induce the act or acts constituting the violation.

Liability under Section 20(a) generally requires two elements: a primary violation of the federal securities laws by the “controlled person”, and proof that the person charged with the Section 20(a) “controlled” the primary violator.  It is unclear whether there are any circumstances under which a municipal official sitting on a multi-person board or council could be held to “control” an issuer, or issuer personnel, found to be a primary violator responsible for fraudulent statements in an offering document for municipal securities.  But in the Allen Park enforcement action the SEC appears to have alleged that the mayor controlled the city, the alleged primary violator.

If a primary violation and “control” of the person or entity that made the misleading statement is established, the burden shifts to the “control person” to establish good faith, which, unsurprisingly, means the absence of bad faith, which is akin to the absence of scienter.  In theory, even if an accused official does not establish good faith, he or she can avoid liability upon proof that he or she did not “induce” the primary violation.  The courts have not conclusively adjudicated whether to “induce” requires active encouragement, or whether in some circumstances the failure to exercise efforts to prevent a violation can be deemed to induce the violation.

The Allen Park enforcement action was settled by the issuer and the officials without admitting or denying liability, and sets no precedent on what type of conduct by an issuer official constitutes “control” over a primary violator of the securities laws or induces the violation.  But it suggests that in the aftermath of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have eliminated aiding and abetting liability in private actions under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and narrowed the circle of potential primary violators that the SEC can allege “make”, within the meaning of Section 10(b), a fraudulent statement in a securities offering document, the SEC intends, when feasible, to use a “control person” theory to go after actors it deems culpable for securities fraud in municipal offerings but cannot reach as primary violators.

Initial reaction to the SEC’s introduction of “control person” charges to municipal securities enforcement actions has included concern that public officials involved with municipal entities that issue bonds or other securities may now face charges and potential vicarious liability for disclosure malfeasance by other issuer officers or employees.  However, the SEC will face an uphill battle proving allegations of “control”, bad faith and “inducement” of a primary violation by an issuer board member or official who may have approved the distribution of an official statement but was not actively involved in its preparation, did not sign the official statement, and did not urge another official to exclude or include particular disclosure. The extent to which the SEC will include “control person” charges in future enforcement actions alleging primary securities law violations by an issuer or another issuer official remains to be seen, but such charges are most likely to be brought where there is evidence of active complicity in deceptive disclosure.

 

By William Kannel and Adrienne Walker

Pennsylvania’s legislature recently approved House Bill No. 1773, an overhaul to its Municipalities Financial Recovery Act, commonly known as “Act 47.”  HB 1773 was signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett on October 31, 2014.

Act 47 was established in 1987 to provide the Commonwealth, largely through the Governor’s office, greater oversight over financially troubled municipalities.  Under Act 47 (currently and after the amendments go into effect), if a municipality is found to be in financial distress the Commonwealth is authorized to pursue a series of escalating steps to address the municipality’s financial problems, ranging from a coordinator to a receiver selected by the Governor.  At each level of state oversight, municipalities are required to adopt or abide by recovery plans to address their respective financial distress.  No Act 47 plan may unilaterally alter the rights of bondholders.

The primary changes to Act 47 include the following:

  • Termination Date:  The amendments establish a maximum 5 year exit strategy.  While the amendment does not stop a municipality from returning to Act 47, its intent is to move municipalities more quickly through an Act 47 rehabilitation.  This change will impact municipalities, such as Pittsburgh, which is presently under Act 47 oversight.  The amendment will require all current Act 47 municipalities to exit Act 47 oversight within 5 years from the date of their most recently enacted recovery plan.
  • Early Intervention Program:  With the goal of preventing municipalities from experiencing significant financial distress, the Commonwealth will establish an early intervention program to provide resources to municipalities to manage potential financial distress.  This early intervention program may provide financial support to municipalities through grants (subject to partial matching by the municipality) to develop plans for fiscal stability.
  • Ability to Raise Certain Taxes:  The amendment will allow a municipality under certain circumstances to petition to triple the applicable local services tax.  However, the amendments exempt Pittsburgh from this potential opportunity.
  • Disincorporation:  While it is unlikely to be a common occurrence, the amendments outline a process for disincorporation of “nonviable municipalities.”  For purposes of the disincorporation provisions, the definition of municipality excludes any city of the first class – which only includes Philadelphia. The process of disincorporation involves both state court and gubernatorial oversight. Upon disincorporation, the municipality is established as an unincorporated services district and the municipality’s assets (including bondholder collateral) would vest in the Commonwealth and be held in trust for the residents, property owners and other parties in interest.  While the amendments appear to preserve bondholder rights to collateral and payments of debt obligations, bondholders involved with a municipality that may disincorporate must be vigilant in preserving their rights to both their collateral and future debt service payments.

By Maxwell D. Solet

On October 24, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service issued Notice 2014-67 (the “Notice”), which provides important guidance and increased flexibility for issuers and conduit borrowers of tax-exempt bonds regarding contracting with private parties in a manner that avoids “private use” by such parties of bond-financed facilities. The Internal Revenue Code restricts private use of facilities financed by certain categories of tax-exempt bonds, including governmental bonds and bonds issued for the benefit of hospitals and other organizations that are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The Notice addresses so-called “management contracts,” i.e., contracts (other than leases) with private parties that provide services with respect to bond-financed property, and, as discussed below, states that no private use will be deemed to arise from such contracts provided their term does not exceed 5 years and the compensation methodologies adhere to an expanded menu of permissible arrangements.

The Notice also addresses the treatment, for private use purposes, of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) established under the Affordable Care Act, and provides helpful guidance for participation in such organizations without creating “private use.”

The New 5-Year Safe Harbor

The Notice “amplifies” Revenue Procedure 97-13, which provides various safe harbors under which management contracts will not be treated as causing private use of bond-financed facilities. Both the National Association of Bond Lawyers and the American Bar Association have urged that this 1997 Revenue Procedure be updated to reflect substantial changes since its publication in the sorts of arrangements being proposed or used in connection with bond-financed facilities, including the use of ACOs.

The Notice’s new safe harbor for contracts with a term not exceeding five years improves on the existing safe harbor for contracts of similar length in several respects:

  • The new 5-year safe harbor permits a binding contract for the full 5-year term. The existing one required that the contract be terminable without penalty by the issuer or conduit borrower at any earlier date than their full term.
  • The existing 5-year safe harbor required that at least 50% of the compensation payable to the private party under the contract be fixed. The new 5-year safe harbor, as confirmed by informal conversations with the IRS, permits any combination of the permissible compensation methods outlined in the 1997 Revenue Procedure, including a 100% variable compensation methodology based on a percentage of revenues or a percentage of expenses (but not both, since that would be considered a proxy for participation by the private party in the bond-financed facility’s net profits, which is a third rail for “private use” purposes.)
  • While Revenue Procedure 97-13 allowed an annual “productivity award” based on achievement of revenue or expense goals, the Notice permits a new type of annual incentive payment keyed to satisfying quality performance standards.

IRS private letter rulings approving management contracts outside the safe harbors for some time have focused principally on the absence of an interest in net profits. The new safe harbor established under the Notice does the same, eliminating most of the detailed compensation rules under the existing 5-year and shorter safe harbors. The IRS can be expected at some point to promulgate a new Revenue Procedure which will eliminate those no longer necessary provisions.

While the Notice has a January 22, 2015 effective date, it specifically allows application to earlier bonds or contracts. Accordingly, the enhanced flexibility in compensation methodologies can be built into new contracts, and existing contracts can be amended if desired to take advantage of the new flexibility without jeopardizing tax-exemption of outstanding bonds.

Treatment of ACOs

The Notice also clarifies that hospitals or other health care organizations will not be treated as creating private use of bond-financed facilities through their participation in ACOs mandated by the Medicare Shared Savings Program under the Affordable Care Act.  The United States Treasury and the IRS have been focused on ensuring that federal tax policy not be inconsistent with federal health care policy, which has increasingly encouraged and in some cases mandated collaboration between tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations and for-profit entities. ACOs are a prime example. The IRS previously, in Notice 2011-20, provided favorable guidance on the effect of ACO participation on the tax-exempt status of such charitable organizations.

While an argument could be made that ACO arrangements are just a variation on third-party payment arrangements, and third-party payers have never been treated by bond counsel as “users” of bond-financed facilities, the need for this guidance arises, first, from the fact that ACOs must be distinct legal entities, frequently partnerships, which are separate from the health care provider and separate from insurers, and, second, from the fact that these arrangements provide for financial sharing between the exempt and non-exempt participants which might be viewed as problematic for the private use analysis. Under the Notice, upon satisfying multiple stated requirements, ACOs will not be treated as creating an impermissible net profits interest by the ACO or its private participants (such as doctors’ organizations) and therefore will not be treated as private use. This guidance is consistent with recommendations made by industry groups, including the National Association of Bond Lawyers. The major shortcoming of those recommendations and this guidance is the failure to deal with ACOs other than those which are created under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, health care providers are under increasing pressure to participate in ACOs to deal with other third-party payers, and such ACOs may include features which are not blessed under the Notice.