Merrill Settles SEC Charges Over ‘Squawk Box’ Misuse for $7 Million

Merrill Lynch will pay $7 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission administrative charges that the investment bank neglected to protect customers whose orders were transmitted over “squawk boxes.” The penalty is the second highest fine that the SEC has imposed for cases involving Section 15(f) of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act and Section 204A of the 1940 Investment Advisers Act violations. These statutes mandate that investment advisers and broker dealers implement procedures and policies that would keep employees from misusing nonpublic, material data.

The SEC says that from 2002 to 2004, a number of Merrill Lynch brokers at three branch offices let day traders, who did not work for the company, hear customers’ unexecuted orders as they were being broadcast over the internal intercom systems. The traders used the information to trade before Merrill’s institutional clients’ orders were placed.

The SEC says Merrill did not have the procedures or polices to prevent employees from accessing the squawk boxes or to supervise them to make sure that they did not misuse customer order data. In addition to paying the penalty, Merrill Lynch says it will implement a number of measures to ensure that customer order data is protected any time it is sent over squawk boxes or other technologies used for their transmission.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York had filed criminal charges related to the squawk box front-running activities against a number of Merrill employees, A.B. Watley Group Inc., and several individuals. While seven defendants were acquitted of nearly all the charges, they must go back to trial for a single count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Former Merrill stockbroker Timothy O’Connell was found guilty of witness tampering and issuing false statements.

Related Web Resources:
SEC Charges Merrill Lynch For Failure to Protect Customer Order Information on “Squawk Boxes”, SEC, March 11, 2009
SEC Administrative Proceedings Against Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, & Smith Inc., (PDF)

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