Articles Posted in Ausdal Financial

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to see a surge of complaints from investors who bought unlisted or non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). For most investors, the prospect of getting a higher yield on any investment has been alluring. With rates near zero, it’s been hard to earn a return that beats inflation. Enter REITs and funds that invest in them. These are special vehicles that bundle real estate properties into one investment: You can invest in everything from apartment buildings to storage units.

Many REITs are listed and traded on stock exchanges, but some are not, which are called “private” or “unlisted” REITs. In their heyday, REITs routinely paid double-digit yields. Unlisted or “non-traded” REITs have been a consistent sore spot for investors in recent years. Many are loaded with fees and commissions, which dramatically lower investors’ net returns. They even may be money losers, even though they are sold with the promise that 90% of the income generated by properties they hold must be paid to investors. Middleman expenses, which can be as high as 15%, eat up returns in most cases.

Disclosure of the actual financial condition of these vehicles has also been troublesome. It’s hard for investors to know the true value of the properties within these vehicles, which have been aggressively sold by broker-dealers, who make high commissions selling them. When the COVID-19 crisis wracked the economy earlier this year – at first hitting commercial real estate developers and owners particularly hard – REITs that specialized in retail and office properties got clobbered. Retail and Hotel REITs were down 48% and 53%, respectively (as of April 15), according to Deloitte. Investors in these funds, of course, may be still experiencing large losses.

Chicago-based securities law firm Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors in FINRA arbitrations nationwide recovering losses suffered in the GPB Capital Holdings group of funds, including the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Holdings Fund II, and the GPB/Armada Waste Management Fund.

One of the appealing pitches that broker-dealers and investment advisers offer is the opportunity to invest in private companies with outstanding earnings potential, or in the case of GPB, relatively high annualized “interest” payments. Instead of buying shares in public companies on stock exchanges, the advisers sell interests in “closely held” companies, which are not listed on exchanges and not required to openly disclose their financial statements.

One such company was GPB Capital Holdings LLC, which has been the subject of federal and state litigation. GPB Capital is a New York City-based alternative investing firm that “seeks to acquire income-producing private companies.” So-called private placements have posed problems for investors in recent years because of sketchy financial disclosure and overselling.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented hundreds of investors who have been victims of one of the most egregious investment frauds: Ponzi schemes. These swindles promise quick riches and rely upon an increasing number of “investors” to keep the operation going, sometimes over a period of years. The schemes eventually blow up when new investors can’t be found to perpetuate it or promoters are outed by investors or associates for faking returns.

The most famous Ponzi scheme – and perhaps one of the largest – involved broker-money manager Bernie Madoff. Over a period of 17 years, Madoff defrauded thousands of investors, lying about profitable trades. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison, after pleading guilty to a $65 billion swindle of some 65,000 victims around the world. Many of Madoff’s victims, which ranged from non-profit organizations to celebrities, were financially ruined. A court-appointed “Madoff Victims Fund” has distributed nearly $3 billion to investors. His sons, who worked for their father’s firm, turned Madoff into authorities when they learned of the scam.

Despite the notoriety of the Madoff swindle, Ponzi schemes are still ensnaring innocent investors. As one of the oldest investment fraud vehicles around, the Ponzi scheme has two selling points: Promoters promise outrageous returns in a short period of time and rely upon continuing stream of new victims to “pay off” early investors in fake profits. This perennial false promise of easy riches makes it one of the most durable schemes for dishonest brokers, who continue to sell them — until the frauds collapse.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to see a surge of investor cases involving “alternative” investments like non-traded REITs, BDCs, oil and gas LPs, and other private placements. These “alts” are almost always considered to be on the speculative end of the risk scale, and frankly, they usually perform poorly and result in investor losses.

Alternative investments cover a wide variety of unconventional investment vehicles. They may employ novel or quantitative trading strategies or pool money for investments in commodities or real estate, for example. The one thing they all usually have in common is steep management fees along with commissions. Both expenses come out of investors’ pockets. Examples of alternative investments, or “alts” in industry parlance, include unlisted or “private” Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), private equity, venture capital and hedge funds. While they are generally sold to high-net worth investors who can afford to take on increased risk, they are usually illiquid and complex. Brokers who sell these vehicles may not fully disclose how risky they are. Most of these investments are unregulated, so supervision by regulators is typically light or non-existent.

Investors can file arbitration claims with FINRA if brokers sell inappropriate alternative investments to clients. A year ago, FINRA censured and fined the broker-dealer Berthel Fisher in connection with sales of “inappropriate” alternative investments. FINRA awarded six investors $1.1 million and fined the firm $675,000. Berthel Fisher has had a history of running afoul of investors and regulatory fines. In 2014, the firm was fined $775,000 by FINRA for “supervisory deficiencies, including Berthel Fisher’s failure to supervise the sale of non-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs), and leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds (ETFs).” The firm was also selling managed commodity futures; oil and gas programs; business development companies; leveraged and inverse Exchange Traded Funds and equipment leasing programs.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against Robert Gravette, Mark MacArthur, and their Registered Investment Advisory firm, Criterion Wealth Management Insurance Services, Inc. According to the complaint filed by the SEC on February 12, 2020, Gravette and MacArthur orchestrated a scheme whereby they funneled their clients’ money into four private placement funds without disclosing that the fund managers, with whom they were personal friends, paid them compensation in excess of $1 million for doing so. This compensation arrangement was recurring, so Gravette and MacArthur had an undisclosed financial incentive to keep their clients’ money in these funds, as opposed to allocating the money elsewhere, when appropriate.  Further, the huge fees Gravette and MacArthur received reduced the investment returns that the investors would have otherwise received.  The SEC alleges that these acts violated the fiduciary duties owed by Gravette and MacArthur to their investment advisory clients, and constituted fraud.  The SEC complaint alleges an impressive list of federal statutory violations, including Sections 206(1), 206(2), 206(4), and 207 0f the Advisers Act, 15 U.S.C. sections 80b-6(1), 80b-6(2), 80(b)-6(4), and 80b-7, and Rule 206(4)-7 thereunder.

At all times relevant to these allegations, both Gravette and McArthur were dually registered representatives with a FINRA registered broker/dealer called Ausdal Financial Partners. According to the SEC, Ausdal Financial was involved in these transactions because Criterion opened accounts for them at Ausdal and the private placement funds were held on Ausdal’s account statements.  Under FINRA Rules and regulatory notices, Ausdal Financial, at all times relevant, had a duty to supervise the disclosed Advisory activities of its registered representatives.  See FINRA Rule 3280, NTMs 91-32, 94-44, and 96-33.  The dual-registration of investment advisors creates supervisory challenges for brokerage firms like Ausdal because under SEC Rules, they must maintain and record transactions like those entered into by their dually registered agents on their books and records, or its a violation.  Since they must maintain transaction records which they did by virtue of holding these funds on their account statements, they also must supervise those transactions and the activities of their registered representatives, even if they appeared to be acting solely on behalf of their advisory firm. FINRA does not care and neither should the victims of this scam, which was executed in plain sight.  Any competent compliance department would have supervised the transitions in these real estate private placement funds.

The very nature of these funds being “private placements” would have required an added measure of scrutiny by Ausdal compliance. Private placements tend to be speculative and exposed investors to unique risks like lack of liquidity, concentrated risk, key-man risk, and management risk not typically found in publicly traded investments like mutual funds.  The most substantial issue with a private placement is that they typically pay their brokers very high commissions compared to more standard investments.

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