January 27, 2015 / 3:51 PM / in 4 years

Oppenheimer to pay $20 million over improper U.S. stock sales

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Oppenheimer & Co will pay $20 million to settle U.S. charges alleging the brokerage’s flawed anti-money laundering program missed red flags and allowed illegal penny stock sales.

The Securities and Exchange Commission said Oppenheimer will pay $10 million to settle the case with the agency, plus another $10 million to settle parallel charges with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

As part of the settlement, Oppenheimer is admitting to wrongdoing and must hire an independent consultant to review its policies over a five-year period.

An Oppenheimer spokesman said the conduct occurred years ago and the firm is pleased to resolve the matter.

FinCEN said this marks at least the third time Oppenheimer has been in trouble with various regulators over its anti-money laundering policies. The firm was also fined in 2005 and 2013.

In addition, two other Oppenheimer units have faced unrelated SEC charges since 2012, including cases involving private equity fund valuation and mutual fund disclosures during the financial crisis.

SEC Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney said during a news call that the penalty reflects the significance of the regulatory failures.

Correspondent accounts at banks and brokerages, which allow foreign financial firms to access U.S. markets, have been a big issue for regulators in recent years.

A 2001 Senate report revealed deep concerns about the role the accounts play in global money laundering, prompting Congress to include provisions in the Patriot Act requiring financial institutions to ensure they know the foreign entities they serve. FinCen’s case against Oppenheimer alleged violations of these provisions.

The SEC said its case against Oppenheimer centered on two areas of misconduct.

The first involved Oppenheimer’s relationship with its client, Gibraltar Global Securities, a Bahamas-based brokerage the SEC sued in 2013 over related illegal activity. The SEC said Oppenheimer essentially allowed Gibraltar to sell penny stocks illegally to its U.S. customers, even though Gibraltar was not properly registered. Oppenheimer also failed to file suspicious activity reports about Gibraltar’s activities as required by the Bank Secrecy Act.

In the second, the SEC said Oppenheimer allowed a customer to illegally sell unregistered penny stock shares to the public.

Separately on Tuesday, the SEC also granted a regulatory waiver that will let Oppenheimer continue to raise capital privately. Absent a waiver, the charges against the firm would have automatically banned Oppenheimer from such activity.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Brett Wolf in St. Louis; Editing by Bill Trott and Andre Grenon

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