Stoltmann Law Offices has been following the Justice Department’s case against former Ameriprise Financial advisor Yilin Hsu Lee, a/k/a Li Lin Hsu, since 2016 when she was barred by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  On Friday, January 31, 2020, the Justice Department announced that Hsu had been sentenced to 136 months in prison – more than 11 years – for swindling her clients out of almost $8.2 million dollars. Amongst her more than 20 victims were members of her family, an all too common fact in Ponzi scheme cases like this.  Although she has been ordered to pay over $5 million in restitution as part of her sentence, it is unlikely she will ever be able to repay even a fraction of what she owes to the victims.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Hsu’s scam ran from February 2014 to May 2018. During this time, it was alleged that she falsely represented to investors that she would invest their money safely.  Instead of investing the money conservatively as she represented, Hsu converted her clients’ money and used the funds to buy homes in Diamond Bar, California, a Tesla automobile, an expensive stay at the Peninsula in Paris, France, and spent thousands of dollars of her clients’ hard-earned money during shopping sprees at Hermes and Chanel.

Hsu gained the trust of her victims, mostly members of the Chinese American community in Southern California, by speaking to them in their native Chinese or Mandarin. This is called Affinity Fraud which is a specific type of scam where the schemer solicits his victims from a select community, usually one he is actually a part of. Affinity Fraud scams impact specific ethnic and religious groups. In Hsu’s case, she focused her fraudulent scheme on the Chinese American community.  Her ability to speak the same language and understand the customs of her victims made her even more dangerous, and even easier for her victims to fall for her fraudulent sales pitch.  As pointed out by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Affinity Fraudsters may not actually be members of the community they seek to victimize, they just pose as a member, in a true crime sense.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating on behalf of defrauded investors claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that Lester W. “Chad” Burroughs, a financial advisor for Lincoln Planning of Torrington, Connecticut, misappropriated client money for personal use. Burroughs was also a registered investment advisor through Capital Analysts. According to the SEC complaint filed on December 9, 2019 in the Federal District Court, District of Connecticut, Burroughs ran his scheme from November 2012 through at least January 2019.  It was a simple scam, one that is all too common in fact.  Burroughs offered victims an investment called a “Guaranteed Interest Contract”, also known as a “GIC”.  The terms of these “GICs” offered by Burroughs included interest at either 4% or 7% per year for the term of the contract. Once again, and these scams are becoming so much more common, 4% to 7% per year is not an exorbitant return people typically think of when being sold a fraudulent investment.  In fact, 4% per year barely pays more than the average rate of inflation.

In furtherance of his scheme to defraud his clients, Burroughs created fake account statements, and according to the SEC, the reason he sold GICs to subsequent investors was to pay off previous investors – the hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Burroughs is no stranger to customers complaints. When he was hired by Lincoln Planning, Burroughs had fourteen customer complaints disclosed on his CRD Report, which is a statistically enormous number.  Burroughs also paid a fine to the Insurance Commission of the State of Connecticut in 2003 for violations. This history of complaints and compliance issues put Lincoln Planning on notice when they hired Burroughs in 2012 that he was a compliance risk.  Standard operating procedure at a brokerage firm like Lincoln Planning under these circumstances would be to place the advisor on “heightened supervision”.  These heightened supervision programs regularly require increased compliance surveillance like random, unannounced on-sight branch audits and direct communications with clients without the knowledge of the advisor. Certainly, had Lincoln Planning put the necessary resources into supervising Burroughs, he would not have so brazenly created and sold these phony GICs to clients.

This “heightened supervision” requirement for brokers like Burroughs with a history of customer complaints has been part of the regulatory lexicon required by FINRA for almost 20 years.  In NTM 03-49, then NASD (now FINRA) explained to brokerage firms like Lincoln Planning that brokers with a history of customer complaints should be more closely monitored because they are a compliance risk. NASD provided some statistics in this notice which were pretty shocking when one considers the number of complaints Burroughs had on his record prior to even being hired.  According to this notice, only 3.3% of all registered brokers had at least one customer complaint; 0.71% had two; 0.22% had three, and only 0.09% were subject to at least four customer complaints. The Fourteen complaints on  Burroughs record put him in extremely rare company.  Lincoln Planning had an obligation to adequately supervise Burroughs and the firm clearly failed to do that.  As such, Lincoln Planning can be liable for the damages caused by Burroughs to his clients.

Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate allegations that Robert Walberg of Arlington Heights, Illinois, defrauded a few dozens investors, including family, friends, and the Northwest Suburban Montessori School. As we previously discussed, on January 24, 2019, the Illinois Securities Department issued a Temporary Order of Prohibition against Robert C. Walberg, Chartwell Strategies LP, and Chartwell Advisory Group LLC. Chartwell Strategies LP is a hedge fund created and sold by Robert C. Walberg and his company, Chartwell Advisory Group LLC. According to the Illinois Securities Department, Mr. Walberg solicited an Illinois resident at the end of 2017 and early 2018 to invest in Chartwell Strategies LP. Mr. Walberg allegedly commingled his client’s funds with his personal assets. Walberg was charged in early October with wire fraud, investment advisor fraud, securities violations, and theft by deception. According to court papers, Walberg is alleged to have converted more than $600,000 from the Montessori school he acted as Treasurer for, which puts the school’s future at risk.  It was reported recently that Walberg also stole $45,000 worth of retirement money from his Aunt and Uncle.

Mr. Walberg was a registered FINRA broker on and off from 1984 through 2013, but he has not been registered with the SEC or FINRA since November 2013. Because he was not registered, in furtherance of his scheme, Walberg had his investor “clients” open accounts at Fidelity.  He then used the clients’ credentials to log-in to their accounts and transfer funds from their Fidelity accounts to Chartwell Strategies, a private entity allegedly created for investment purposes.

Depending on the nature of the transactions and specifically how Walberg gained access to his clients’ funds, Fidelity could be responsible for either negligence, or aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty. All too frequently, fraudsters use big named, well known companies like Fidelity to give their schemes an aura of legitimacy.  Fidelity has duties and obligations to all of its clients, including purported victims of Walberg’s scam, to at a minimum, perform its compliance, execution, and supervisory functions at or above the standard of care. Further, Fidelity, as a FINRA member firm, has explicit responsibilities to its clients to ensure it adaquetly monitors and supervises electronic access to their accounts and have reasonable measures in place to ensure someone other than the client is not logging-in using their credentials. This is a bright red flag that someone is acting in a questionable manner. In the normal investment advisor-client relationship which uses Fidelity as the broker/dealer, that investment advisor has his own log in credentials and uses the Fidelity RIA platform to run his business.  That Walberg did not do this and instead used client credentials is an indicia that he was not licensed or registered to act as an investment advisor. Upon information and belief, Walberg abused his trust in this way to numerous clients resulting in the theft of as much as $5 million.  Fidelity could have liability for these losses.

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:

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