Securities Law Prof Blog

Editor: Eric C. Chaffee
Univ. of Toledo College of Law

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

UBS Settles SEC Charges of Fraudulent Bidding Practices Involving Investment of Municipal Bond Proceeds

The SEC and UBS Financial Services Inc. (UBS) settled charges of fraudulently rigging at least 100 municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 36 states and generating millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.  UBS has agreed to pay $47.2 million that will be returned to the affected municipalities. UBS and its affiliates also agreed to pay $113 million to settle parallel cases brought by other federal and state authorities.

When investors purchase municipal securities, the municipalities generally temporarily invest the proceeds of the sales in reinvestment products before the money is used for the intended purposes. Under relevant IRS regulations, the proceeds of tax-exempt municipal securities must generally be invested at fair market value. The most common way of establishing fair market value is through a competitive bidding process in which bidding agents search for the appropriate investment vehicle for a municipality.

According to an SEC spokesperson: “Our complaint against UBS reads like a ‘how-to’ primer for bid-rigging and securities fraud.  Specifically, the SEC alleges that during the 2000 to 2004 time period, UBS’s fraudulent practices and misrepresentations undermined the competitive bidding process and affected the prices that municipalities paid for the reinvestment products being bid on by the provider of the products. Its fraudulent conduct at the time also jeopardized the tax-exempt status of billions of dollars in municipal securities because the supposed competitive bidding process that establishes the fair market value of the investment was corrupted. The business unit involved in the misconduct closed in 2008 and its employees are no longer with the company.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, UBS played various roles in these tainted transactions. UBS illicitly won bids as a provider of reinvestment products, and also rigged bids for the benefit of other providers while acting as a bidding agent on behalf of municipalities. UBS at times additionally facilitated the payment of improper undisclosed amounts to other bidding agents. In each instance, UBS made fraudulent misrepresentations or omissions, thereby deceiving municipalities and their agents.

According to the SEC’s complaint, UBS as a bidding agent steered business through a variety of mechanisms to favored bidders acting as providers of reinvestment products. In some cases, UBS gave a favored provider information on competing bids in a practice known as “last looks.” In other instances, UBS deliberately obtained off-market ”courtesy” bids or arranged “set-ups” by obtaining purposefully non-competitive bids from others so that the favored provider would win the business. UBS also transmitted improper, undisclosed payments to favored bidding agents through interest rate swaps. In addition, UBS was favored to win bids with last looks and set-ups as a provider of reinvestment products.

Without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s complaint, UBS has consented to the entry of a final judgment enjoining it from future violations of Section 15(c) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. UBS has agreed to pay a penalty of $32.5 million and disgorgement of $9,606,543 with prejudgment interest of $5,100,637. The settlement is subject to court approval.

This is the SEC’s second settlement with a major bank in an ongoing investigation into corruption in the municipal reinvestment industry. In December 2010, the SEC charged Banc of America Securities LLC (BAS) with securities fraud for similar conduct. In that matter, BAS agreed to pay more than $36 million in disgorgement and interest to settle the SEC’s charges, and paid an additional $101 million to other federal and state authorities for its misconduct.

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