Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with brokers who have sold highly unsuitable investments to their clients. Brokers have a legal obligation to sell investments that are suitable for their clients’ age, risk tolerance, financial sophistication, and mental capacity. Sometimes, though, they ignore all of these safeguards to take advantage of older customers to generate what they think are easy commissions.

The worst cases that we’ve represented usually involve wealthy elderly clients whose portfolios are pilfered and re-invested in risky vehicles that lose large amounts of money, often leaving them impoverished. These practices are commonly known in the industry as “selling away,” or diverting assets away from investments brokerages normally deem inappropriate for older clients.

Eduardo Tarajano, Sr., 80, is suing his broker Jorge Sonville for investing more than $4 million in a Key Biscayne, Florida, liquor store, which was later sold for $585,000. Sonville, working for Merrill Lynch, had allegedly drained Tarajano’s family trust to buy a stake in the store. Tarajano’s federal suit alleges that Sonville worked with Tarajano’s son and the broker’s cousin to “pilfer the accounts Merrill Lynch was managing.” The cousin reportedly received a commission for the liquor store transaction.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating allegations in a grand jury indictment in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, levied against Keith Todd Ashley, of Collin County, Texas.  According to the indictment, which was filed on November 13, 2020, Ashley ran a Ponzi scheme while a registered representative for Parkland Securities, formally known Sammons Securities Company, and Midland National, a life insurance and annuity company. According to the indictment, Ashley recommended investors purchase UITs (Unit Investment Trusts) through Parkland and another entity called SmartTrust, which was an investment offered by another brokerage firm, Hennion & Walsh. The indictment alleges that Ashley made representations via email to clients that these investments offered returns of anywhere between 3% and 9% per year, with no risk to the investor’s principal, and that the securities were offered through Parkland and SmartTrust.  The indictment further alleges that instead of investing the money as represented, Ashley converted a substantial amount of it – more than $1 million – for his own use.

If you invested with Keith Ashley and believe you have suffered losses in connection with his alleged Ponzi scheme, please contact Stoltmann Law Offices, at 312-332-4200 for a free, no obligation consultation with a securities attorney.  

The news in connection with Mr. Ashley and his scheme turned quite dark just this afternoon when the publication Investment News ran a story indicating that Ashley was arrested in Carrolton,Texas on suspicion of committing murder. The story reports that Ashley is accused of murdering an investor-client in February 2020, staging the murder as a suicide, in some attempt to gain access to the victim’s money. Ashley was discharged from Parkland Securities in October suggesting he was fired for failing to disclose outside business activities.  This is a common response by brokerage firms when it turns out that one of their registered representatives has been running a Ponzi scheme.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with brokers selling unsuitable Exchange Traded Products (ETPs).  When a broker sells you a product that is “guaranteed” to make money during volatile markets, there’s no downside for the person selling the vehicle. They always make money on investors’ fear and ignorance.

A prime recent example is the widespread sale of volatility-linked Exchange-Traded Products. While these vehicles may make money in the short term when the stock market turns bearish, they can lose money in the long run, which brokers may not disclose. Volatility ETPs are linked to “fear” indexes like the CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX, a short-term gauge of downside activity. When the market dips, they can increase in value.

Average investors, however, get burned when they hold onto fear indexes. Brokers who sold these products know that, but often don’t get clients out before they lose money. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently cracked down on broker-dealers who sold these vehicles to unsuspecting investors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices in investigating cases where brokers have been treated unfairly by their firms.  A growing issue for financial advisors is when they are pushed out of their firms or treated unfairly simply for getting older. When this happens, brokers can file age discrimination lawsuits against their former employers.

Judith Bovitz, a 70-year-old financial advisor with Wells Fargo, sued her employer last year for age and gender discrimination. She claimed Wells retaliated against her by transferring her to a smaller branch office when she complained that younger, male advisors were being assigned more lucrative accounts, according to Reuters. She had a $100 million book of business at the time of the lawsuit. Bovitz spent her 34-year career at Wells and its Prudential Securities predecessor. “I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because other advisors were given accounts,” Bovitz told Advisorhub.com. “I’m sick and tired of being passed over.” The company said it is “reviewing” Bovitz’s allegations.

In 2011, Wells Fargo Advisors, the wealth management unit of Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to pay $32 million to settle a gender bias class-action suit with about 3,000 women advisors. The women claimed that compared with their male advisor counterparts, female advisors were “provided fewer business opportunities by the company. The women also claimed that female advisors were impaired by limited career advancement, work assignments and distribution of accounts,” one of the ways firms chose to shift customers to younger, male advisors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with brokers selling unsuitable investment products. Sometimes brokers break so many rules in hurting their clients that they are barred from the industry by FINRA, the industry’s primary regulator.

Case in point: Marshall Owen Isaacson, a former broker with Newbridge Securities of Boca Raton, Florida, was recently expelled from the industry. Isaacson, who had worked with 13 different brokerages, was barred for his involvement in making “unsuitable investment recommendations” while with Newbridge. Of course, one violation doesn’t get you kicked out of the industry. Isaacson had a string of violations going back several years. According to the FINRA BrokerCheck record, which is required to post broker infractions in its public database, Isaacson had 10 separate disclosed complaints, disputes or judgements going back to 2012.

In the last recorded complaint by FINRA, Isaacson  “consented to the sanction and to the entry of findings that he refused to provide documents and information requested by FINRA in connection with its investigation into whether he made unsuitable investment recommendations,” the FINRA record stated.  In plain language, Isaacson didn’t cooperate with FINRA investigators and agreed to the regulator’s final disciplinary action. That means he loses his license to sell securities. Needless to say, there’s more to the story. Brokers can often compile of trail of complaints and customer disputes for decades while still selling investment products.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors in claims to recover investment losses in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.  The carnage wrought by COVID-19 on brick and mortar stores and retail shops has taken down two REITs:  The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) and the CBL & Associates Properties, Inc. (CBL) each filled for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy this week.  Facing catastrophic losses in connection with retail tenants unable to pay rents, the REITs didn’t seem to believe they had many other options available.  If you were an investor in CBL or PREIT, your shares are now worthless. If you were solicited to invest in CBL or PREIT by a financial or investment adviser, you could have a claim to pursue to recover your losses.

PREIT and CBL are publicly traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).  These REITs are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and trade on a fairly liquid basis. Any individual REIT maintains investments in any number of properties, from as few as two, to as many as twenty or more. REITs are concentrated real estate investments and should only play a small role in an investor’s otherwise well-managed, diversified portfolio of investments.  If your accounts have more than 10% invested in REITs, you should consider setting up an appointment with your financial advisor to discuss your broader asset allocation.

REITS, whether they are traded or the more speculative, illiquid non-traded REITs, may be unsuitable for most retail investors for another reason. Many retail investors have most of their net-worth concentrated in property already – their home – and do not need to have any additional exposure to complicated, potentially high risk investments like REITs.

Scott Wayne Reed (“Agent Reed”), of Scottsdale, Arizona, has been engaging in various misconduct in customer accounts for years now. Most recently, earlier this year Wells Fargo customer alleged that Agent Reed solicited him to invest in “an investment opportunity in a company not offered by Wells Fargo Advisors”, Reed broker-dealer at the time. Upon information and belief, Reed tried to solicit several customers to invest in outside business activities sponsored by Hollywood producers. This “selling away” activity led to Reed’s departure from Wells Fargo on April 7, 2020.

Several of Agent Reed’s customers have complained that he sold them unsuitable investments in private placements, oil and gas investments, hedge funds, and mutual funds and over-concentrated their accounts in private placements. In 2017, elderly clients of Reed filed a complaint against Reed’s previous brokerage firms, Accelerated Capital Group (“ACG”) which is now out of business, and Coastal Equities, and later adding him personally to the complaint, for selling them several unsuitable investments. Included in these investments were various Staffing 360 issuances, Aeon Multi-Opportunity Fund, which became Kadmon, and Aequitas, which ended up being a Ponzi scheme. The clients lost their entire investment in Aequitas. They lost between 92% to 99% of their investments in Staffing 360 and lost 70% of their investments in Aeon/Kadmon. Reed sold these investments to his clients even after there were red flags that these companies were completely failing and drowning in debt.

Agent Reed has bounced around several brokerage firms, and has also worked as a registered investment advisor. From 1999-2001, he was registered with Ameritrade. His longest tenure was at Fidelity from 2001 through July 2010. He had brief stints at Strategic Advisors, Inc. and Meridian United Capital before joining Accelerated Capital Group from 2010 through 2015. Agent Reed was registered with Coastal Equities for only five months then joined Wells Fargo from April 2016 through April 2020. While his CRD Report states that he “voluntarily resigned” from Wells Fargo, the explanation details that his resignation came while he was under investigation for selling away. He has been registered with First Financial Equity Corporation since April 2020. Reed was also a dually registered RIA with Gentry Wealth Management from July 2010 through April 2016, which became Ashton Thomas Financial in 2015. According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Mr. Reed operates as “Reed Private Wealth”.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating incidences of investors whose brokerage accounts have been hacked. Market regulators are investigating reports that customers of the popular online trading app Robinhood were ripped off. Hackers reportedly obtained account information of Robinhood customers, then transferred funds out of their accounts. The customers have contacted the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and FINRA, the securities industry regulator, to probe the thefts.

How safe is your money in an online brokerage account? It should be protected by numerous safeguards, although lately cyberthieves have found a way to steal money directly from investors. During the COVID pandemic, online trading soared, with millions of day traders using their phones and other devices to trade stocks and other securities. But as a recent wave of customer complaints suggest, their accounts have been hacked and money taken from their accounts, according to Bloomberg News.

In a statement to Bloomberg, Robinhood did not take responsibility for the thefts:

Stoltmann Law Offices, a Chicago-based securities and investor rights law firm continues to investigate claims by investors who were sold investments in the fraudulent note scheme Future Income Payments. Investors have rights and if you were solicited to invest in Future Income Payments by your financial advisor, you may have a claim to pursue for negligence or fraud. According to an article that appeared on ThinkAdvisor, former SagePoint financial advisor Troy Baily solicited several clients to invest in securities offered by Future Income Payments (“FIP”).  FIP turned out to be a multi-million dollar pension scam with investors losing everything.  According to the article, Baily submitted to what is called an “Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent” with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority as a result of these ill-fated solicitations.

An AWC  is essentially the formal settlement of a regulatory investigation conducted by FINRA of a licensed financial advisor. In this instance, Baily accepted FINRA’s conclusion that he solicited four SagePoint clients to invest a total of $210,000 in securities offered by Future Income Payments.  In so doing, he violated FINRA Rule 3280 and FINRA Rule 2010. As punishment for his violations, Baily accepted a six-month suspension and a fine in the amount of $5,000.  Although an AWC is technically not an admission of fault or guilt, the facts alleged by FINRA are clear and do not require interpretation – Baily sold FIP investments to his SagePoint clients.

The best bet for victims, especially those who were Baily’s clients, is to pursue his broker-dealer, SagePoint through FINRA Arbitration. As we have said in the past, brokerage firms are ultimately responsible and liable for the misconduct of their agents. Here, there are two separate routes investors can take to recover against SagePoint. The first is through the legal theory of apparent agency, or Respondeat Superior. This is an age-old legal concept that the principal is responsible for the conduct of its agent, so long as the conduct is performed in the course and scope of that agency relationship. Here, Baily sold securities, provided investment and financial advice, to clients to invest money in FIP. That is clearly within the scope of his agency relationship with SagePoint.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is representing investors who were solicited by their financial advisors to invest in junk-bonds offered by now bankrupt Hornbeck Offshore. The bonds sold to our clients were rated D by Standard and Poor’s at the time of the solicitation, which is as low as bond ratings go.  This was not even speculation, it was financial homicide. The financial advisor at issue in our clients’ cases, Thomas M. Bonik was registered with NTB Financial Corporation (f/k/a Neidiger, Tucker, Bruner), which is headquartered in Colorado and has offices all over the country.  Mr. Bonik’s office was primarily in St. Augustine, Florida.

Hornbeck Offshore had been struggling financially for years.  The company is primarily engaged in offshore oil drilling and transportation. The persistently low prices for oil and gas for the past few years resulted in Hornbeck struggling financially due to a heavy debt load. Part of that debt was in the form of bonds purchased by investors.  Covid was the last straw for this struggling company and in June it filed a pre-packaged Chapter 11 plan in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas.  These pre-packaged plans are negotiated in advance with the “Secured” creditors, and typically burn bond holders like our clients. No surprise, our clients have lost every dime they invested in these Hornbeck bonds.

Financial advisors recommend clients invest in corporate or municipal bonds that are technically “junk” rated because these bonds have much higher yields than higher rated bonds. In the persistent low-rate environment in the US and to some degree the worldwide economy has been in since after the financial crisis, investors and advisors alike reach for higher yields, often investing in esoteric alternatives to grab that extra yield.  In this instance, the recommendation was to invest in corporate bonds that were rated “D” by S&P, which defines this rating as:

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