Oppenheimer to Pay $20M Settlement to the SEC and FinCEN Over Penny Stock Violations

Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY) has consented to pay $20 million to resolve settlements with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The firm is accused of not properly identifying and reporting suspect trades in penny stocks. The low priced, highly speculative securities are easy to manipulate and involve in pump-and-dump scams.

At least 16 Oppenheimer customers in several U.S. states were reportedly identified as having engaged in “suspicious activity.” Admitting guilt, the broker-dealer acknowledged that it did not set up and implement a proper anti-money laundering program nor did it perform sufficient due diligence on a foreign correspondent account. Oppenheimer also said that it failed to comply with the USA PATRIOT Act’s Section 311, which allows FinCEN’s director to decide whether a foreign financial firm is a money laundering risk.

The government agency said that because Oppenheimer did not notify its foreign correspondent financial institutions of the special measures under Section 311, the firm ended up conducting business without setting up the necessary procedures, policies, and internal controls that allow it to reasonably report and detect suspect fraud activity from ’08 to ’14.

FinCEN noted that this is the second time it has penalized the Oppenheimer for similar violations. It fined Oppenheimer $2.8 million in 2015. In 2013, it was the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that fined the broker-dealer $1.4 million for anti-money laundering failures and securities laws violations.

Meantime, in the SEC’s parallel action, the regulator noted two times between ’08 and ’10 when the firm took part in unregistered penny stock sales. One incident involved a financial adviser and his branch manger purposely engaging in the unregistered sales of 2.5 billion penny stock shares for one customer even though the shares were not registration exempt. The trades made $12 million and the firm got $588,400 in commissions. Oppenheimer is accused of not reacting to red flags or looking into whether sales were exempt from registration.

The other incident is over Oppenheimer’s possible involvement in purportedly illegal activities involving Gibraltar Global Securities, which is a broke-dealer in the Bahamas that is not registered to do business in the United States. The firm purportedly executed billions of shares of penny stocks in Gibraltar’s account and either knew or was negligent if it didn’t know that that firm was making transactions and providing brokerage services for customers, many of whom were based in the U.S.

The Commission said that Oppenheimer did not report possible misconduct by Gibraltar and its clients and, also, did not properly deal with over $3 million in backup withholding taxes in that brokerage’s account. The filing of Suspicious Activity Reports is a Bank Secrecy Act requirement.

As part of the SEC settlement, Oppenheimer is admitting wrongdoing and will pay $10 million. The other $10 million resolves the FinCEN claims.

Read the SEC Order (PDF)

FBI raids Florida firm with ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ link: witnesses, Reuters, January 14, 2014

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SEC Sanctions UBS, Charles Swab, Oppenheimer, & 10 Other Firms For Improper Sales of Puerto Rico Junk Bonds, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, November 3, 2014

Ex-Oppenheimer Fund Manager to Pay $100K To Settle Private Equity Fund Fraud Charges, Institutional Investor Securities Blog, January 25, 2014

Oppenheimer Told by FINRA to Pay $675,000 Fine, $246,000 Restitution over Municipal Securities Transaction Pricing, Supervisory Violations, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, December 12, 2013