Articles Posted in Failure to Supervise

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 is investigating reports of selling away and securities fraud engaged in by Douglas Kiffmeyer.  On July 27, 2020, Douglas Kiffmeyer pleaded guilty to 17 counts delivered via indictment in June 2018.  Kiffmeyer pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. Section 1343, 14 counts of failing to timely file income tax returns, 26 U.S.C. Section 7203, and one count of engaging in a financial transaction in criminally derived property, 18 U.S.C. Section 1957.  Kiffmeyer has yet to be sentenced but under federal criminal sentencing guidelines, should received between 46-57 months in prison. At times relevant to perpetrating his criminal scheme, Kiffmeyer was a registered representative and financial advisor for FINRA broker/dealer Brokers International Financial Services, LLC.

According to Kiffmeyer’s FINRA BrokerCheck Report, many of the entities through which he conducted his fraudulent investment scheme were disclosed as “outside business activities” to his member-firm. According to the Stipulation of Facts entered on July 27, 2020, Kiffmeyer’s scam began as investments he solicited in a company called Creative Digital, Inc., which he represented was designing a digital trigger for the M-16 rifle. In total, Kiffmeyer raised $827,000 for Creative Digital, Inc., but spent almost all of the money on a GMC Sierra 1500 truck, a Hummer H2, a motor coach, a Corvette, a Nissan 370, and an engagement ring. According to the Stipulation, of the $827,000 raised, only $1,500 was returned to investors.

Kiffmeyer’s scheme took a different and even more sordid turn next. He began selling promissory notes to elderly investors, convincing them to surrender IRAs and annuity products in exchange for promissory notes bearing interest. One of his victims was 90 years old. The last part of Kiffmeyer’s scam involved selling interests in a medical marijuana clinic. Little, if any, of the $206,000 raised for this company was used for the business and was instead converted for personal use.

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.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered investment losses at the hands of financial and investment advisers who churned and burned their accounts. One of the most prevalent abuses in the securities industry is excessive trading, or “churning” client accounts. This practice, which is forbidden by industry regulators like FINRA and the SEC, is done to generate commissions, almost always at the expense of the client. As the stock market swings wildly during the Covid-19 pandemic, brokers take advantage by trading their clients’ accounts to generate commissions.

Brokers can open the door to churning by asking customers if they want an “active” trading strategy, which gives brokers discretionary ability to trade at will. Unless clients give specific directions on how and when to trade, brokers may take the opportunity to trade excessively and charge needlessly high commissions.

Churning has been the subject of numerous regulatory actions over several decades. Broker Frank Venturelli, a representative for First Standard in Red Bank, New Jersey, was cited by FINRA for excessive trading between 2016 and 2018. According to FINRA settlement, clients lost more than $373,000 during that period. Venturelli was suspended from the industry for 11 months and ordered to pay partial restitution of $30,000 to his clients.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers selling exchange-traded products. Many of these high-risk products are unsuitable for retail investors.

With the COVID-19 crisis roiling financial markets, many investors have been sold products that rise when market indexes or individual securities fall. Many “exchange-linked products” (ETPs) often use borrowed money, or leverage, to magnify gains when the market drops, but they can also increase losses. They are generally only suitable for sophisticated investors and are linked to complex underlying futures contracts.

When the coronavirus crisis first made major headlines in the U.S. in early March, the stock, bond and commodities markets crashed. Since markets over-react to widespread greed and fear, traders went into mass selling mode over (later justified) expectations that demand for nearly everything from luxury goods to commodities would drop dramatically.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is currently investigating claims on behalf of TCA Global Credit Fund and TCA Fund Management Group investors involving Royal Alliance advisor Mark Young, and Watts Capital, LLC and Thomas Watts. On May 11, 2020, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil suit in federal court in Miami, Florida against TCA Fund Management Group and TCA Global Credit Fund.

The SEC complaint seeks to prevent TCA Fund Management Group and the Global Credit Fund from committing ongoing securities law violations and also sought the appointment of a receiver. The SEC alleges that for many years, the TCA Global Credit Fund, through its affiliate TCA Fund Management, intentionally inflated the net-asset-value – or price – of the fund hiding massive losses from investors. The SEC alleges that TCA inflated these values in two ways.  First, the fund recognized revenues that it never actually received. It would essentially book a gain on loan fees prior to actually receiving them and if the loans never closed, TCA would not adjust their books to reflect reality. The second way TCA artificially inflated its books, according to the SEC, was to book investment banking fees it never actually earned, and actually knew in many instances that it would never earn. Basically, the way this scam worked, according to the SEC, is TCA would enter into a contract with a company to perform investment banking services for, let’s say, $100,000.  Instead of waiting to actually perform the services and receive the $100,000 payment, TCA would book the $100,000 as received on their books at the time the contract was executed. The result of these practices was to provide investors with inflated values of these funds. The SEC alleges that these practices violations Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, 15 U.S.C. Section 77q(a), and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. Section 78j(b), and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5, 17 C.F.R. Section 240.10b-5; and violations of Sections 206(1), (2), and (4), along with Section 2076 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, 15 U.S.C. Sections 80b-6(1), 80b-6(2), 80b6(4), and 80b-7, and Advisers Act Rules 206(4)-7 and 206(4)-8, 17 C.F.R. Sections 275.206(4)-7, 275.206(4)-8.

According to documents field with the SEC for TCA funds, called a Form D, TCA Fund Management Group used numerous FINRA-Registered broker/dealers to sell  investments in the TCA Global Credit Fund for many years including:

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 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.

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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