USI Advisors Will Pay $1.27 Million To Settle Charges It Violated ERISA Fee Disclosure Requirements


USI Advisors Inc. (USI) will pay $1,265,608.70 to 13 pension plans to resolve charges it violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by failing to properly disclose 12b-1 fees it collected off of fund investments.  The complaint behind the settlement reflects the commitment of the U.S Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) to enforcing Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) fee disclosure and other requirements against service providers to employee benefit plans.  With regulations tightening, the tough economy driving greater scrutiny of plan investments, expenditures and performance, and enforcement rising, plan vendors, and the employee benefit plan sponsors and fiduciaries responsible for their engagement, compensation and oversight need to ensure the adequacy of their processes for deciding and reporting compensation, as well as the qualification, selection and oversight of vendors and fiduciaries generally. 

USI Settlement

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) USI, fiduciary investment adviser made investments in mutual funds on behalf of ERISA-covered defined benefit plan clients and received 12b-1 fees from those funds. A 12b-1 fee is paid by a mutual fund out of fund assets to cover certain expenses. USI Advisors failed to fully disclose the receipt of the 12b-1 fees, and to use those fees for the benefit of the plans either by directly crediting the amounts to the plans or by offsetting other fees the plans would be obligated to pay the company.

“If you, as an investment adviser, are a fiduciary under ERISA with respect to plan investments in mutual funds, you cannot use your fiduciary authority to receive an additional fee or to receive compensation from third parties for your own personal account in transactions involving plan assets. We are very pleased that this settlement addresses the problems we identified with USI’s practices and restores funds to the plans and their participants,” said Phyllis C. Borzi, assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security. “We are also very pleased that recently finalized fee disclosure regulations issued by the Labor Department will require fiduciaries like USI to be more transparent about the fees they receive when dealing with their plan clients.”

Under the terms of the settlement, USI Advisors has agreed not to provide bundled investment advisory and actuarial services to any ERISA-covered defined benefit plan client without first entering into a written agreement, contract or letter of understanding that specifies the services provided and whether the company or its affiliates will act as a fiduciary to those plans. USI Advisors also will provide to clients a description of all compensation and fees received, in any form, from any source, involving any investment or transaction related to them.

The alleged violations in this case occurred between 2004 and 2010. USI Advisors is a wholly owned subsidiary of USI Consulting Group, a Goldman Sachs Capital Partners Co.

The investigation conducted by EBSA as part of the agency’s Consultant/Adviser Project, highlights the need for employee benefit plan fiduciaries and vendors alike to properly identify and report all vendor compensation received by employee benefit plan investment advisors and other service providers in compliance with ERISA’s fee disclosure and other requirements.  The Consultant/Adviser  Project targets vendors and advisors to employee benefit plans for review, and where applicable, enforcement action when service providers violate ERISA’s requirements.  EBSA has made misconduct by consultants, advisors and other service providers a priority as part of its broader emphasis on enforcement of ERISA’s fiduciary responsibility and reporting requirements.

Tightening Rules, Enforcement & Tough Times Driving Risks

The EBSA’s announcement of the USI settlement comes as it continues to move forward to strengthen the transparency of vendor compensation and other fiduciary regulations and enforcement.  Just shortly before today’s announcement, EBSA recently clarified its guidance about  how its  rules affect 401(k) plan brokerage window arrangements in response to public feedback. Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-02R published July 30, 2012, modifies and replaces Q&A 30 of Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-02 (issued May 7, 2012) with a new Q&A 39.

EBSA’s final fee disclosure regulation[i] published on requires plan administrators to make to disclose specified information about retirement plan fees and expenses to participants and beneficiaries. The regulation requires plan administrators to give participants and beneficiaries more informationm about administrative and investment fees and expenses in their 401(k) plans.

EBSA issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-02, which provided guidance to its field enforcement personnel in question and answer format on the obligations of plan administrators under the fee disclosure regulation on May 7, 2012. In response to questions and concerns about statements in Question 30 regarding brokerage windows and other arrangements that enable plan participants and beneficiaries to select investments beyond those designated by the plan, EBSA issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-02 which supersedes Field Assistance Bulletin 2012-02 by modifying its provisions about brokerage windows and inviting more public comments for EBSA to use to consider further clarification of this guidance. 

As did its predecessor, Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2012-02R specifies that while the fee disclosure regulation covers “brokerage windows,” “self-directed brokerage accounts,” and other similar plan arrangements that enable participants and beneficiaries to select investments beyond those designated by the plan, its coverage of brokerage windows is limited to the disclosure requirements in paragraph (c) of the regulation relating to plan-related information. The disclosure requirements for investment-related information in paragraph (d) of the regulation do not apply to brokerage windows, self-directed brokerage accounts, and similar arrangements or to any investment selected by a participant or beneficiary that is not designated by the plan (i.e., any investments made through the window, account, or arrangement).

Beyond meeting the technicalities of the fee disclosure requirements, plan sponsors, fiduciaries and vendors should also ensure that their selection, oversight, determination of compensation and other dealings with plan vendors and consultants meet the general fiduciary responsibility, prohibited transaction, bonding and other requriements of ERISA, as well as any applicable securities and tax requirements.

Through its participant fee disclosure and other stepped up fiduciary regulations and enforcement, EBSA is sending clear signals that it stands ready to investigate and take action against service providers or others that charge excessive fees, failure to adequately justify or appropriately disclose fees or other compensation from plan transactions, or other fiduciary protections of ERISA.  In the face of these requirements, plan fiduciaries, sponsors, advisors and vendors should carefully review the appropriateness of compensation received or promised to plan vendors, as well as the adequacy of practices for identifying and reporting that compensation and the selection and oversight of the vendors receiving that compensation.

For Help or More Information

If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your group health or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices to respond to emerging regulations, monitoring or commenting on these rules, defending your health plan or its administration, or other health  or employee benefit, human resources or risk management concerns, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 24 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters. 

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials concerning regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns. 

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and registerto receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

For important information concerning this communication click here. THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

 Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

For important information concerning this communication click here. THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.


[i]See 75 FR 64910 (Oct. 20, 2010).

 

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-Exclusive License To Republish Granted To Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All Other Rights Reserved.

 

One Response to USI Advisors Will Pay $1.27 Million To Settle Charges It Violated ERISA Fee Disclosure Requirements

  1. [...] USI Advisors Will Pay $1.27 Million To Settle Charges It Violated ERISA Fee Disclosure Requirements [...]

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