SEC official to angel community: go ahead, develop your own verification methods!

Keith Higgins, the relatively new Director of the Division of Corporation Finance, delivered a speech at the closing session of the 2014 Angel Capital Association Summit - and was it a doozy!

A huge issue for angel investors is the "reasonable steps to verify" accredited status that is part of new Rule 506(c), which permits issuers to engage in "general solicitation." The issue was a focus of at least two breakout sessions at the Summit, including one Thursday moderated by ACA policy chair Mike Eckert that I participated in with the gifted lawyers Peter Rosenblum and Rob Rosenblum (not related), and an excellent breakfast briefing Friday from K&L Gates lawyers Gary Kocher and Kevin Gruben.

1842308438_83cb923365_oThe reason for such attention is the anxiety caused by the non-exclusive verification "safe harbors" set out in Rule 506(c). These verification methods contemplate that, going forward, an issuer is going to have to demand personal financial information from investors, or engage third party verification services to do so. To many readers of the new rule, including a majority of securities lawyers, the safe harbors - in spite of the "non-exclusive" label - feel destined to prove de facto requirement.

But Higgins said that needn't be the case.

In his speech (the full text of which you can access on the SEC's website), Higgins emphasized that if any verification standard might be core under Rule 506(c), it is the flexible, "principles-based" approach laid out in the inital release proposing the new rule:

"These [applications of the principles-based method] are all part of a deliberate effort by the Commission to provide issuers with an alternative to the clear but highly prescriptive list of verification methods included in the rule. In fact, it is ironic that this list of verification methods is being viewed by some as the primary way to verify a purchaser’s accredited investor status when, in fact, the Commission originally proposed the principles-based approach as the way issuers would comply with the rule’s verification requirement and added the list of specific verification methods only in response to address the concerns of commenters who wanted more certainty."

As Gary Kocher explained plainly in his breakfast briefing earlier in the day, lawyers are a conservative bunch, and naturally are going to navigate to the safe harbors. But, Gary stated he believed that the staff meant what they said in the rule and in the release, that the principles-based approach was viable. I think Higgins' speech completely validates Gary's view.

All of this portends well for verification methods based on the Angel Capital Association's Established Angel Group guidance, which would not require the turning over of sensitive financial information to issuers or their vendors.

As for seeking express SEC staff blessing of particular applications of the principles-based method of verification? Higgins seemed to say that was both not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon, and also beside the point:

"On that note, we have had recent inquiries asking whether the staff would provide guidance – presumably on a case-by-case basis – confirming that a specified principles-based verification method constitutes 'reasonable steps' for purposes of the rule’s requirement.  The notion of the staff reviewing and approving specific verification methods seems somewhat contrary to the very purpose of a principles-based rule and I am not yet convinced of the need for this type of staff involvement. Rather, this is an area where issuers and other market participants have the flexibility to think about innovative approaches for complying with the verification requirement of the rule and use the methods that best suit their needs. While the staff may not be in a position at this point to provide guidance on what constitutes 'reasonable steps' under particular circumstances, I also believe the staff will not be quick to second guess decisions that issuers and their advisers make in good faith that appear to be reasonable under the circumstances."

I should note that the angels I spoke to at the Summit, and the questions they posed in the breakout sessions, were more precisely focused on the definition of general solicitation and the activities at pitch events and the like that might push a company from 506(b) territory into 506(c) territory. But let's step back a second and look at the problem from just a story or two higher: to the extent that verification under 506(c) becomes more manageable, then the general solicitation issue becomes somewhat less of an existential distinction. (There may yet be reasons to avoid publicly soliciting investors - but that is another topic.)

Success for principles-based verification approaches will not be self-executing. Angels and their entrepreneurs will have to insist on them, and will have to make sure they have enough rigor to acquire respect. In the right circumstances, lawyers for a given deal might, just might, go along.

Drawing: "Principles Mound" by Paul Downey / Flickr.


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