Chicago-based investor rights attorneys at Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. have been retained by an investor who lost substantial sums from her portfolio in 2018 and 2019 during an unprecedented bull market.  The investor’s complaint alleges that because her Chicago-based Morgan Stanley broker invested most of her retirement accounts in “bear” mutual funds, that she lost approximately $150,000 when her accounts should have actually increased by at least $100,000. The Morgan Stanley financial advisor apparently believed he had the ability to time the market and aggressively placed unsuitable bets on the market’s direction. It is alleged that Mr. George bet virtually all of this investor’s retirement money on the belief that the stock market would abruptly collapse in 2018 or 2019. Unfortunately for this investor, who is retired and has little investment experience to speak of, she missed out on the gains  she would have received had Morgan Stanley invested her funds in a well managed portfolio catered to her investment objectives and risk tolerance.

The specific funds that Morgan Stanley financial advisor Richard George is alleged to have recommended to this investor are:

  1. Leuthold Grizzly Short Fund (symbol GRZZX)

The news continues to get worse for the thousands of retail investors with money locked-up in various GPB Capital Funds. Those funds include the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Waste Management Fund, and GPB Fund II, amongst others. Stoltmann Law Offices has been investigating these funds for several months. We have filed roughly two dozen FINRA Arbitration claims on behalf of our clients to recover their losses in these funds from the brokerage firms responsible for soliciting them to invest in these ill-fated private placements.

On November 22, 2019, GPB sent a letter to their “partners” informing them of some really bad news.  The recent indictment of GPB Capital’s Chief Compliance Officer by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for obstruction of justice, amongst other claims, has caused the auditing process to fall off the rails. All of those promises by GPB to investors, all of those promises repeated by financial advisors to their clients, that GPB was well on its way to finally providing restated, audited financial statements, have officially been broken. The letter states that GPB’s auditor has “decided to suspend work on outstanding financial statement audits. In addition, the Audit Committee has elected to resign effective ups the earlier of the completion of the Rosenberg Investigation or by November 27, 2019.” The “Rosenberg investigation” is the self-implemented third party investigation into how the company’s CCO obstructed justice, and what GPB knew and when it knew it. Well, according to the indictment, detailed on this blog last month, GPB hired the CCO with knowledge that he had confidential information obtained from his participation in the SEC’s investigation of GPB. They knew he had  obtained information from the SEC in the course of its investigation, it would seem, and GPB made him their chief compliance officer.

The November 22, 2019 notice also eviscerates another false narrative promoted by GPB and passed along to clients by financial advisors, who are scrambling at this point to come up with excuses.  Despite operating in a red-hot economy where car sales are through the roof, the GPB Automotive Fund has managed to lose over $200 million and GPB Holdings II has lost roughly $125 million.  To add insult to injury to the investors stuck holding this rapidly depreciating asset, GPB is not allowing investors to unload their units on secondary markets.  Unfortunately for investors, this is what a Ponzi scheme looks like when it is no longer able to attract new investor money.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating allegations that Linan Abrego (aka Ma Rosa Linan Abrego) misappropriated client funds at Merrill Lynch. According to published reports,  Abrego was barred by FINRA for failing to appear or respond to an inquiry in connection with her termination from Merrill Lynch on June 10, 2019 for misappropriating client funds. The misconduct reported by FINRA alleges that Linan Abrego of McAllen, Texas, failed to appear as required by FINRA Rule 8210 and accepted a lifetime ban from the securities industry, instead of answering FINRA or providing information in furtherance of FINRA’s investigation. According to her publicly available FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Ms. Linan Abrego was registered with Merrill Lynch as a broker and financial advisor from December 6, 2016 to June 10, 2019 when she was terminated for cause by Merrill Lynch for “misappropriating client funds.” Pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210, if FINRA requests a broker sit for on the record testimony (called an OTR) and the broker either refuses or simply does not show up or refuses to provide answers to written questions, or refuses to produce documents requested by FINRA in the course of their investigation, this can be grounds for being permanently barred from the securities industry. It is the equivalent of a career death sentence. Once a broker is barred for life by FINRA, absent extraordinary circumstances, that person will need to seek a career change.

Typically, brokers who refuse to show up for a Rule 8210 request do so knowing they are sacrificing their securities licenses. Some brokers may be near retirement or are not interested in maintaining their licenses, so they rather not submit themselves to an OTR, which can be stressful and require retaining legal counsel. Other brokers fail to show up for an OTR because they fear the testimony they will give may be incriminating if they are truthful. The FINRA AWC agreed to and signed by Ms. Linan Abrego only states he failed to show up for the OTR and provides no further explanation for barring her from the securities industry. Linan Abrego did this willingly, and instead of providing testimony from FINRA about why she was fired by Merrill Lynch, she chose to accept a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

Routinely, financial advisors who steal money from their clients do it in such a manner which should have alerted the firm’s compliance or supervision departments. Many times this sort of theft is facilitated by the broker simply forging withdrawal forms or requests. Another common way brokers steal money is to set up a third party LLC or other entity to which the broker directs client money directly from their accounts through wire transfers.  Sometimes the clients allow these transfers because the broker tells them these transfers are an investment in a company, or it’s where her commissions are paid to. No matter the ruse, sophisticated brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch are required to have procedures in place to catch their brokers if they attempt to steal client money. Whether there were unauthorized withdrawals or transfers from your accounts, every FINRA brokerage firm, like Merrill Lynch must have robust Anti-Money Laundering rules and regulations in order to ensure a level of alertness in these circumstances. Failing to properly execute these procedures which results in a broker stealing client money results in liability for the firm for negligent supervision, putting Merrill Lynch on the hook for the losses.

Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate and file cases on behalf of investors in connection with the GPB Capital Funds.  On November 6, 2019, a new lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Texas, in Austin, that provides a new level of detail about the scam being run by GPB Capital for the last six years or so. The complaint is filed as a class-action complaint on behalf of an investor, and all similarly situated, in any of the several GPB Capital Funds. The case, Barasch v. GPB Capital Holdings, et al., Case No. 19-cv-01079, alleged civil conspiracy, fraud, and violations of various securities laws. The complaint offers a glimpse into the multiple layers of gross conflicts of interest that permeated, intentionally, throughout the entire GPB Capital universe. From the auditors to the placement agents, at every level of the organization, conflicts existed from which GPB Capital actively sought, and did, capitalize. The complaint alleges that the 8% return guaranteed by GPB Capital was a farce. The truth is, according to the allegations, the 8% distributions were paid with other investor money, or the actual investor’s money meaning it was actually a return OF investment, as opposed to a return ON investment. The complaint references misleading and fraudulent account statements generated by GPB Capital representing these payments as “distributions” when in reality the fund was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Stoltmann Law Offices has been retained by dozens of investors to purse claims involving GPB Capital Holdings, including the following GPB Funds:

    • GPB Automotive Portfolio, LP

The smoke has been steadily rising from GPB Capital Holdings for about a year at this point. Over the last few months, however, it has been all quite on the GPB Capital front. The main talking points being communicated by GPB Capital to brokers and financial advisors to then deliver to their investor-clients, have been that everything at GPB Capital is fine and that the audited financial statements will be delivered in no time. Well, as the Wizard of Oz said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Just today, InvestmentNews published a story reporting that an executive at GPB Capital has been indicted for obstruction of justice. Nothing happening indeed.

According to a press release issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, a superseding indictment was unsealed charging Michael S. Cohn, Managing Director and Chief Compliance Officer with obstruction of justice, unauthorized computer access, and unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. According to the indictment, Mr. Cohn was an employee of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) when he left the commission for a position with GPB Capital Holdings. In the course of that transition, Mr. Cohn is alleged to have stolen investigatory files and materials relevant to the ongoing SEC investigation into GPB Capital and then delivered those materials to his brethren at GPB Capital. FBI Assistant director-in-charge William Sweeney was quoted in the press release stating, “When Cohn left the SEC to join GPB, he left with more than his own career ambitions.” What’s worse, when Cohn was interviewing for his job with GPB, he let them know he had this information and shared it. The grand jury indictment  contains allegations, which if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, could land Mr. Cohn in prison for decades.

The fact that GPB Capital hired Mr. Cohn after he told them that he had inside information about the SEC’s ongoing investigation into GPB, is as clear an indication yet that GPB Capital is running an unreliable and highly questionable business, where at a minimum, ethics are of no concern. Investors should be concerned about this latest development because it indicates a few important points. First, it’s an indication that the SEC’s investigation into GPB is still ongoing. Second, the indictment reflects the acts of an allegedly corruptible person who was entrusted at GPB with being the company’s chief compliance officer – a position for the incorruptible. It is staggering that GPB would hire Mr. Cohn after he approached the firm with clearly illegally obtained information and highly confidential documents.

LPL terminated financial advisor Dain F. Stokes on August 28, 2019 for selling unregistered promissory notes to clients that purported to invest in a project in Africa allegedly sponsored by Taylor Swift. According to InvestmentNews, Stokes converted at least $576,000 from two clients, whom he solicited to invest in this phony charity project, which he sold as being created by Swift to help needy people in Africa. Stokes claimed to have a close relationship with Swift, telling clients that she personally hired him to manage the finances of the Africa project and to promote a new song release by her in June 2019. He also told clients that Bill Gates was involved in the project.

The State of New Hampshire Department of State Bureau of Securities Regulation filed a petition and order against Stokes after an investor (“Investor #1”) invested $201,000 in the Africa Project between August 1, 2018 and January 25, 2019. Stokes used promissory notes to facilitate these investments. According to the promissory notes, Investor #1 would receive the return of his entire principal plus 20% interest by making this investment. Payment on the first promissory note was initially due by November 8, 2018, however the due date was continually pushed back by Stokes. At one point, he even told his client that President Donald Trump allegedly froze his assets. Stokes was ordered to pay $201,000 plus interest in restitution to Investor #1 and a $20,000 fine for violating New Hampshire Blue Sky Laws, which prohibit the fraudulent sale of securities (RSA 421-B:5-501) and the sale of unregistered securities (RSA 421-B:3-301(a)). To date, a second investor who invested $375,000 has come forward.  The New Hampshire Department of State Bureau of Securities Regulation has since frozen Stokes’ assets and issued an injunction prohibiting him from speaking with those who invested in this scam.

New Hampshire authorities interviewed Stokes, who refused to provide any details about the African charity, claiming that all information, including the name, was privileged. He also refused to reveal whether the checks, which were made payable to him personally, were invested in his personal accounts.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to investigate investor claims and reports involving former Invest and LPL Financial  registered representative James T. Booth, of Norwalk, Connecticut, who was indicted on charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, and investment advisory fraud on September 30, 2019.  According to the unsealed indictment, Booth is alleged to have executed a Ponzi scheme which effectively converted almost $5 million from forty clients. The unsealed indictment was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 19-CRIM-699, and can be viewed here. Although Booth operated his own company called Booth Financial Associates, he was at all time relevant to this scheme a licensed and registered representative with FINRA member brokerage firms Invest Financial Corporation and LPL Financial.

As we previously discussed on this blog, James Booth was  terminated from LPL Financial on June 26, 2019 for allegedly converting $1 million from his clients. On July 1, 2019, Booth consented to a lifetime ban from the securities industry after FINRA investigated information provided to it by LPL established that Booth converted – or stole – $1 million from clients by depositing the funds into personal accounts for his own use. According to the FINRA Acceptance Waiver and Consent (AWC), Booth committed these alleged acts from approximately April 2014 to May 2019. Looking back, it appears that both LPL and FINRA underestimated the scope of this scam because the SDNY now alleges that Booth stole $4.9 million.

According to FINRA, numerous clients have filed complaints against Invest and LPL Financial to recover funds stolen by Booth. Some of these complaints have already been settled with full recoveries. FINRA Rules and securities industry regulations require brokerage firms like Invest Financial and LPL Financial to supervise their financial advisors. The foundation for this obligation to supervise to found in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which states:

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims on behalf of defrauded victims of California Registered Investment Advisor Strong Investment Management. According to a complaint filed by the SEC on February 21, 2018, Strong and its President and sole owner Joseph B. Bronson defrauded its advisory clients by engaging in what is called a “cherry picking” scheme.   The complaint alleges that for at least four years Bronson abused his clients’ trust by earmarking profitable trades to himself while booking the losers in his clients’ accounts.  The complaint also alleged that Bronson and Strong misrepresented the trading strategy they were engaging in, stating that all trades were allocated pursuant to a pre-trade allocation statement. In reality, alleged the SEC, Bronson reaped substantial personal profits to his clients’ detriment.

On September 25, 2019, the SEC obtained a final judgment against Bronson and Orange County-based Strong Investment which were ordered to pay over $1 million in restitution to defrauded investors. Bronson also faces a lifetime bar from the securities industry. Cherry-picking schemes like that engaged in by Bronson are fairly common unfortunately.  On September 20, 2018, a Louisiana based investment advisory firm, World Tree Financial, was charged by the SEC with orchestrating a $54 million cherry picking scheme. In January 2017, the SEC uncovered another cherry-picking scheme engaged in by Massachusetts based investment advisory firm Strategic Capital Management with a $1.3 million cherry picking scheme.  The list of investment advisors that have engaged in this scheme goes on and on.

Cherry Picking schemes are pretty easy to execute which is why they’re fairly common.  A lot of investment advisors use omnibus accounts to trade their clients’ investments in bulk and then allocate the gains and losses directly to client accounts pursuant to an allocation practice. These practices have to be disclosed on the advisory firm’s Form ADV, but no one is looking over their shoulder to make sure these allocations are done correctly. No one audits these accounts to make sure the investment advisor, who is provided full discretion to execute these transactions, is not cherrypicking or skimming off the top.  The only entity that should be aware of this sort of scam is the brokerage firm through which these cherry-picking schemes are executed.

Financial Services firms sometimes breed their own cyber crooks and for reasons you might not suspect.  And while it is overseas based hackers that get the lion’s share of the publicity, it is internal company crooks who are responsible for much of the thievery.

Scott Capps is an interesting example as he allegedly stole $2.1 million. Recently, Capps told his tale to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joseph DiStefano before a month before the 48-year-old husband and father of one was scheduled to start a four-year federal prison sentence.  In the article, Capps said his path to the crime started out of a series of frustrations—that the source of the money he took was from dormant funds of various Vanguard clients.   After a period of time, those funds must be handed over to state governments as unclaimed property.

Capps acknowledged “”I stole $2.1 million, because I was [upset], because of what happened to my career.” As he explained: “Vanguard, as well as its many competitors, was not finding all the dormant accounts in its systems and didn’t seem to be trying really hard to improve. Checking the laws and questioning company lawyers, Capps became convinced that “we are all doing this wrong.”  The article went on to say he wanted to do it right by sending out a mass mailing or making mass calls to the account holders to tell them to respond and then their accounts wouldn’t be inactive, but Vanguard told him they didn’t want to do it.

Stoltmann Law Offices has been investigating Northridge Holdings and Glenn Mueller on behalf of several clients over the last several months. On September 5, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a complaint against Glenn Mueller, Northridge Holdings, and several other Mueller-controlled companies, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  The complaint alleges that since at least 2014, Mueller, through his tangled web of entities, has orchestrated a veritable Ponzi scheme, raising in access of $40 million from investors based on the representation that he was purchasing properties with those funds. The truth is, Mueller has not purchased a piece of property since 2012. Instead of using investor money to purchase properties, Mueller used new investor funds to make interest and principal payments to previous investors, in class Ponzi-payment fashion. These funds were also used to pay “finders” commissions for referring new investors to Northridge. The SEC also alleges that Mueller used investor funds for personal and family use, including to make loans to family members and trade stocks and options in personal brokerage accounts.

The SEC’s allegations blow the lid off of Northridge and Mueller’s schemes. Although Mueller and his finders represented the “notes” sold by by Northridge were “secured” by property, they are not. In fact, although Mueller claims the full liquidation value of his real estate is over $100 million, he owes investors and mortgages on those properties more than that. Despite all of his representations to the contrary, Mueller and his companies are “upside-down”.  The Daily Herald also details the religion-based sale pitches used by Mueller which is an all too common hook used by schemers.

The next steps for investors is to await the appointment of a receiver. According to the docket report for this case, there is a hearing on Wednesday, September 11 during which the SEC will request the court appoint a receiver and freeze all of Mueller’s and his subsidiaries’ assets. Assuming this request is granted, which given the allegations seems likely, the receiver will begin the process of marshaling assets, selling off properties, and collecting funds to repay creditors and investors.  How long this process takes and how much money investors can expect to get out of this is anyone’s guess. The fact of the matter is, and according to the SEC, Mueller owes more money than his properties are estimated to be worth. Further, any liquidation of real estate creates a buyer’s market, so whatever purported value these properties have, they will likely be sold at a discount eventually.

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