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U.S. SEC charges 71 municipal bond issuers for misleading investors

By Suzanne Barlyn

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) - The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has charged 71 municipal bond issuers, including the states of Hawaii and Minnesota, as well as related entities, for using offering documents that misled investors, the agency said on Wednesday.

The actions, brought under an SEC initiative that encouraged municipal bond issuers to self-report certain violations, involved conduct that occurred between 2011 and 2014, the SEC said. The initiative offered favorable settlement terms in exchange for self-reporting, the SEC said.

All of the entities involved settled with the SEC without admitting or denying the SEC's findings, the agency said.

A spokesperson for Minnesota's finance department did not return a call requesting comment. A Hawaii finance department spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The action covers a wide range of other issuers and entities, including the Ohio State University, the city of Memphis, the town of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and the Delaware Transportation Authority, according to the SEC.

The SEC said that issuers in the case sold municipal bonds using offering documents that contained materially false statements or omissions about their compliance with continuing disclosure obligations.

Continuing disclosure provides municipal bond investors with important information, such as annual financial reports, on an ongoing basis. Failure to comply with continuing disclosure mandates is a "major challenge for investors seeking information about their municipal bond holdings," the SEC said.

Settlements in the cases require the parties to reform their policies, procedures and staff training related to continuing disclosure obligations and to update past filings, among other things, the SEC said.

The cases raised hackles at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group, which on Wednesday called for broad changes in regulation and practices, given the widespread nature of the enforcement actions by the SEC, first against dealers and now against issuers.

SIFMA supports a "robust disclosure regime" in the municipal market, but has "serious concerns" about how the SEC carried out the self-reporting initiative for municipal bond issuers, SIFMA said in a statement.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Frances Kerry and Meredith Mazzilli)