Articles Posted in Failure to Supervise

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:

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a Chicago-based securities, investor protection, and consumer rights law firm that offers victims representation on a contingency fee basis nationwide. We’ve represented investors who’ve suffered losses in connection with the recommendation to invest in variable annuity products.

One strategy that unscrupulous brokers employ is to switch clients out of variable annuities into other insurance products or mutual funds. This move, of course, generates even more commissions, but may not be in the best interest of their customers. With variable annuities, investors who cash out of them within a short period of time also may incur high “surrender” fees, which are onerous. Variable annuities – the more complex and costly version of low-cost fixed annuities – are often oversold by brokers and advisors. Due to high “surrender” fees, they may lock in investors for a certain period of time. Then they may be paying even more commissions and fees in new investments.

Such practices hurt investors and have caught the attention of FINRA, the securities industry regulator. FINRA recently fined Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network and Clearing Services more than $2 million for switching 100 clients from annuities to other products.  The regulator found that from January 2011 through August 2016, Wells Fargofailed to supervise the suitability of recommendations that customers sell a variable annuity and use the proceeds to purchase investment company products, such as mutual funds or unit investment trusts.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that financial advisor Scott Fries of Piqua, Ohio engaged in a Ponzi-like scheme , defrauding investors of nearly $200,000.  According to the complaint filed by the SEC last week, Fries raised approximately $178,000 from investors and used that money to pay personal expenses like his mortgage, payday loans, and credit cards. The SEC further alleges that Fries attempted to fraudulently conceal his activities by creating fake account statements which he delivered to his clients that purported to show their money invested in legitimate investments. The SEC alleges Fries’ misconduct violated several federal securities laws including Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b), and Rule 10b-5 thereunder, 17 C.F.R. 240.10b-5, Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 77q(a), and Sections 206(1) and 206(2) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 80b-6(1) and 80b-6(2).

Before the SEC took action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) barred Fries from the securities industry in November 2019 for violating FINRA Rule 8210. In response to being terminated for cause by his broker/dealer firm TransAmerica, FINRA launched an investigation into the allegations which led to Fries’ termination. If a broker/advisor fails to respond to these requests for information under FINRA Rule 8210, they can be barred for life from the securities industry. In many instances, brokers refuse to answer Rule 8210 requests because doing so would put them in the untenable position of having to answer question under oath.  It is likely, given the SEC’s allegations, that Fries chose not to answer FINRA Rule 8210 requests because it was not in his best interest for their to be a record of whatever this scheme actually was.

Investors who were caught up in this scheme run by Fries have legal options to attempt to recover their losses.  First and foremost, at all times relevant, Fries was a registered, licensed, representative of TransAmerica. This means victims – even those that were not contractual customers of TransAmerica – can file an arbitration action against TransAmerica to seek recovery of their losses. As a FINRA registered broker/dealer firm, TransAmerica is legally obligated to supervise the conduct of its financial advisors. This supervision requirement is rooted in the Securities Act and all applicable state laws, including myriad FINRA Rules and regulations, including FINRA Rule 3110.  Case law also supports the proposition that even non-customers of the firm can sue for the firm’s role in facilitating or failing to supervise their advisors. See McGraw v. Wachovia Securities, 756 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (N.D. Iowa 2010). When “red flags”of misconduct present themselves, firms like TransAmerica have a duty to act and to take steps to protect investors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors who’ve suffered losses in connection with financial advisors who have oversold energy stocks and other energy-related investments. With the COVID-19 pandemic depressing demand for everything from gasoline to jet fuel, it’s been a mostly rotten year for energy stocks. In fact, when news first hit the markets in early March, stocks in many oil & gas companies and funds that invested in them crashed. At one time, the Energy Select SPDR (XLE), an exchange-traded fund that invests in energy companies, was down as much as 58%.

The net effect of tens of millions of Americans sheltering in place, avoiding travel and not commuting slashed demand for fuels. Only a handful of people were getting on jets, buses, ships, trains, or driving to work. That resulted in energy companies eliminating dividends and losing money.  While the economy has recovered somewhat as more states have re-opened in recent months, energy demand is nowhere near where it was at the beginning of 2020. The U.S. economy is now in a recession, which may continue into 2021.

What is important to realize about oil/gas prices is, the decline in energy demand actually began a few years ago – primary energy consumption dropped by half in 2019 alone — hasn’t stopped brokers from selling investments in oil & gas companies. They have sold stocks, limited partnerships, and mutual funds that concentrate in fossil fuels, which are volatile commodities and have a long history or volatility.

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 Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate investor claims related to UBS YES products.  In recent years, with savings yields at rock bottom, investors have been eager to attempt to safely earn a higher return on their money. Wall Street has responded with so-called “yield enhancement strategies” (YES) designed to pump up returns. But these strategies eek out this extra yield by employing extremely risky options trading strategies.

What brokers haven’t told investors in countless pitches, however, is that yield enhancement products are complicated and carry numerous hidden risks. The UBS YES program, involving an “iron condor” options trading plan, has attracted a great deal of attention recently. Investors are suing UBS, the Swiss wealth management firm, claiming they lost money when UBS brokers enrolled them in the strategy. Arbitration claims against the company have also been filed with FINRA, the securities industry regulator.

Investors who invested in the UBS YES program claim they suffered losses, even though the firm claimed the strategy was “conservative” and “low risk,” according to Wealthmanagement.com. What investors apparently were not told is how complex and convoluted the YES strategy was:

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is investigating allegations made by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) that Jose Yniguez sold clients approximately $99,000 worth of investments in an outside company. Fortunately for defrauded investors, TransAmerica Advisors, the company with whom Mr. Yniguez was licensed and registered, could ultimately be liable for any losses in connection with these illicit investment recommendation. Victims of investment fraud can file claims through the FINRA Arbitration process to recover investment losses.

The allegations against Yniguez were unveiled just this week through FINRA regulatory filing called an Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC).  In this document, which is signed by Yniguez, FINRA Department of Enforcement alleges that on November 19, 2018, TransAmerica reported in a Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry (Form U-5) that Yniguez was terminated for “engaging in undisclosed activities with and referring firm and non-firm customers to investment with an outside entity without TransAmerica’s approval.” That Form U-5 spurred FINRA Department of Enforcement’s interest and it launched an investigation into Mr. Yniguez pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210.  FINRA concluded that Yniguez violated FINRA Rules 3270 and 2010 by failing to disclose his involvement with an outside company to TransAmerica. He also solicited eight firm customer to invest in the entity, which is a violation of FINRA Rule 3280.

Just because this activity was undisclosed, does not mean TransAmerica is off the hook. FINRA Rule 3110 requires TransAmerica to adequately supervise its financial advisors. Further, to the extent “red-flags” existed that Mr. Yniguez was engaging in this unauthorized activity, that creates an obligation to “peel the onion” and act. TransAmerica, for example, cannot just ignore emails sent by Yniguez discussing this outside company. It must act and protect both its clients and its own business interests. By failing to reasonable supervise Yniguez, TransAmerica can be liable for negligence to the investors in this scheme. Likewise, due to the fact that outside investments were securities; were sold by a securities broker; to clients of a securities brokerage firm; regardless of whether Yniguez disclosed it to the firm, TransAmerica can be liable for damages due to apparent agency or Respondeat Superior.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has been representing investors nationwide against unscrupulous brokerage firms and their financial advisors for more than fifteen years. Sometimes one of the best ways to avoid bad brokers is to do a little homework. Doing a simple background check can reveal a number of red flags that will help you steer clear of bad actors. All broker records are publicly accessible through the regulator FINRA’s website on a service called BrokerCheck.

What does BrokerCheck tell you? While it may not give you a complete background profile, it will show you if they have been disciplined or fined by FINRA, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other agencies. A pattern of multiple violations is a sure signal that you should avoid them. BrokerCheck will also give you an employment history and information on the firms that employed them. Although it’s not unusual for brokers to jump from one firm to another, repeated employment disruptions may be a warning sign as well.

As the prime securities brokerage regulator, FINRA can fine, sanction and bar brokers from the industry. Complaints about brokers must be investigated – and recorded – by FINRA. If brokers refuse to cooperate with the regulator, they can lose their securities licensing and be expelled from the business.

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.

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