The Securities and Exchange Commission could substantially increase enforcement sanctions under bipartisan legislation introduced on Thursday.
The bill would allow the SEC to impose a maximum $1 million penalty on individuals per violation for the most serious offenses and a maximum $10 million per violation on financial firms. Those levels would be an increase from the current $181,071 for individuals and $905,353 for firms. The measure also would give the SEC latitude to triple the cap for repeat offenders.
Currently, the SEC can levy a penalty equal to the gross amount of ill-gotten gains if an enforcement case goes to federal court. The legislation would permit the SEC to pursue the larger fines through its administrative process.
The legislation is designed to link the size of the penalty to the investor harm caused by fraud, according to a statement from the bill's authors, Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Similar legislation has been introduced in past sessions of Congress but was not passed into law.
"Investors deserve real protection, and the law needs to change to ensure the punishment fits the crime," Mr. Reed, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement. "This bill gives the SEC more tools to demand meaningful accountability from Wall Street."
A Republican author said that higher fines are needed to protect investors.
"If a fine is just decimal dust for a Wall Street firm, that's not a deterrent," said Mr. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's just the cost of doing business. A penalty should mean something, and it should get the recidivists' attention."