SEC Goes After Deadbeats; Considers New Fee Structure

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has set up a new unit to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines.

A team of three lawyers has been hired to find hidden money and get court orders to enforce judgements. Until now, collections were handled by SEC enforcement lawyers, but the system fell short when they started working on new cases or left the agency, former SEC lawyers told Bloomberg News.

"This really fills a need in the enforcement program to put teeth in the remedies that the division imposes," said former SEC trial attorney Stephen Crimmins, now a partner at Pepper Hamilton in Washington. "The SEC never really had the ability to either handle collections work on a professional basis or to outsource it."

In fact, the SEC has collected only 40 percent of the fines it was owed from 1997 to 2002, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued last summer. While $480.4 million in fines were levied in SEC cases, the agency collected $190.1 million, the GAO said.

"Spendthrift defendants, defendants who lack current or future prospects for earning money, and defendants who have declared bankruptcy or are incarcerated contribute to collection problems," the SEC told Congress last year. Budget constraints also hampered SEC’s collection efforts, but the agency’s budget was increased after the accounting scandals of the last few years.

Meanwhile, the SEC is proposing a formal, standardized approach to determining and collecting the fees from the U.S. markets that help fund the agency.

The current rules don’t outline exactly how the fees should be calculated or who should do it, resulting in a scattered approach that differs from one market to another.

The new fee structure would clearly define what trades are covered and how fees should be calculated. Monthly reports would be required from each market showing applicable trades reported to a designated clearing agency, those captured in a trade comparison system but not reported to a designated clearing agency, and trades that don't fall into either category, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The SEC's approach would apply to 12 markets, many of which now use their own method for determining how much they or their members owe.

If the proposal is approved, the changes will apply to all activity in fiscal 2004, which started Sept. 1, 2003. The SEC did not say whether the new procedures would increase or decrease fee collections.

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