Four investment advisers were fined between $45,000 and $95,000 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for violating the agency’s pay-to-play rule.

Canaan Management, of Connecticut, and Highland Capital Partners, of Massachusetts, were each fined $95,000 for continuing to receive advisory fees from government entities following campaign contributions made by associates to elected officials or candidates for elected office, the SEC said Thursday in an administrative proceeding.

StarVest Management, of New York, was fined $70,000, while Asset Management Group of Bank of Hawaii was fined $45,000 for similar violations.

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, the four firms separately agreed to cease-and-desist orders and censures.

At Canaan Management, a covered associate donated $1,000 to the campaign of a candidate for governor of California in August 2018, according to the SEC’s order.

A covered associate is defined as “any general partner, managing member, executive officer, or other individual with a similar status or function; any employee who solicits a government entity for the investment adviser and any person who supervises, directly or indirectly, such employee; or any political action committee controlled by the investment adviser or by any of its covered associates.”

At the time, Canaan Management advised the regents of the University of California regarding approximately $90 million in investment funds. Although the covered associate attempted to receive a return of the contribution, the SEC determined because the contribution was above $350 and not returned within 60 days after discovery by the firm, it did not qualify for an exception.

According to the Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-5, the contribution should have triggered a two-year “time out,” during which the firm should not have provided advisory services to the University of California. But the firm continued to provide advisory services.

A covered associate for Highland Capital Partners made a $1,000 donation in May 2021 to an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Massachusetts, despite the firm advising the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board on approximately $80 million in investment funds, according to the SEC’s order. Again, the covered associate attempted to receive a return of the contribution but did not qualify for an exception because the contribution was above $350 and not returned within 60 days of being discovered by the firm.

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce, in a dissenting statement, said the four enforcement actions reveal the agency’s rule to be a “poorly conceived means to pursue laudable ends.”

“Nowhere do the commission’s orders find that any of the investment advisers solicited new or additional business from any governments at the time of or after the contributions,” she wrote. “In sum, the conduct at issue in these cases is far afield from the conduct that gave rise to the rule.”

Peirce pointed out the smallest fine paid in the four cases, by Asset Management Group of Bank of Hawaii, was in a case where a noncovered associate, a bank officer, donated $1,000 to the governor of Hawaii in July 2018. In September 2018, that employee became head of the firm’s asset management group, thus converting from a noncovered associate to a covered associate.

One of two alleged pay-to-play violations by StarVest Management involved a $400 donation, she noted, which is only $50 above the exempted amount.

The SEC, Peirce said, should “exercise prudence in its enforcement efforts.” Thursday’s four announced actions “do more harm than good,” she said.