Articles Posted in Failure to Supervise

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating allegations against Eric Hollifield that came to light as a result of a regulatory filing by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  According to FINRA, the regulator launched an investigation into Eric Hollifield who was a registered representative of LPL Financial and Hamilton Investment Counsel.  The investigation was in connection with a customer complaint filed in arbitration against Dacula, Georgia-based Hollifield that alleges he stole or misappropriated $1,240,000 from the account of an elderly client. This complaint was filed on August 25, 2021 and came on the heels of LPL terminating Hollifield for cause for “failing to disclose an outside business activity.”  On September 1, 2021 Hamilton Investment Counsel followed LPL’s lead and terminated Hollifield for cause or failing to disclose an outside business activity.

Since Hollifield failed to respond to FINRA’s request for information, pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210, Hollifield accepted a lifetime ban from the securities industry.  Brokers agree to these lifetime bans, instead of cooperating with an investigation, for any number of reasons.  Obviously, given the allegations made by the pending customer complaint and the terminations from LPL and Hamilton, a reasonable conclusion to draw is, Hollifield chose to accept a lifetime bad from FINRA as opposed to disclosing or admitting information to FINRA that could be used against him by criminal authorities. It is important to realize, the facts in the customer complaint and the information contained in the FINRA AWC are mere allegations and nothing has been proven.

LPL has a long history of failing to supervise its financial advisors, like Hollifield. We have blogged on these issues numerous times.  Pursuant to FINRA Rule 3110, brokerage firms like LPL have an iron-clad responsibility to supervise the conduct of their brokers, like Hollifield.  Similarly, brokers have an obligation to disclose “outside business activities” to their member-firm pursuant to FINRA Rule 3270.  LPL cannot get off the hook, however, just because Hollifield failed to disclose an outside business. There are a few reasons for this and they are important.  First, brokers do it all the time and LPL knows it. Therefore, as required by both FINRA regulations and LPL’s open internal policies the procedures, LPL’s compliance and supervision apparatus is geared towards detecting undisclosed outside business activities because it is commonly through these outside businesses, that financial advisors execute their worst schemes and frauds on their clients.  Further, to the extent red flags existed that Hollifield was running an undisclosed outside business or doing something else that violated securities regulations, then LPL can be held liable for negligent supervision, at a minimum. Case law supports the imposition of liability on LPL under these circumstances.  See McGraw v. Wachovia Securities, 756 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (N.D. Iowa 2010).

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a Chicago-based securities and investment fraud law firm that offers representation to victims on a contingency fee basis, nationwide. We are investigating claims for investor/victims of Ron Harrison’s alleged options trading scheme. On September 30, 2021, the SEC filed a civil complaint against Ron Harrison and his company Global Trading Institute, LLC seeking an injunction and to have a restraining order put in place to freeze his assets.  The SEC complaint alleges that Harrison ran a substantial options trading scheme where he charged clients a percentage of alleged gains in their brokerage accounts on a monthly basis. The problem is, as alleged by the SEC, there were no gains, only losses. According to the complaint, Harrison traded directly through access to his clients’ brokerage accounts.  Twenty-two investor victims suffered losses of over $2 million.  The SEC alleges that Harrison received at least $900,000 in ill-gotten fees from the scheme, a lot of which was transferred to his Russian fitness instructor girlfriend.

Harrison was not licensed to provide investment advice or trade securities with any regulator or state. In fact, he was barred from the securities industry way back in 1992 for misappropriating funds and excessively trading customer accounts. This trading scam dates back to 2016 and continued on well into 2021.  Records reviewed by Stoltmann Law Offices reveals that Harrison’s clients used TD Ameritrade as their broker/dealer. Part of Harrison’s scheme was to have investors provide him with their credentials to log into their brokerage accounts and trade options pursuant to his alleged strategy.  The options trading Harrison engaged in was highly speculative and aggressive, including writing naked put options and using hefty amounts of margin.  Because of the activity Harrison engaged in, and because of the highly regulated market options trading takes place in, TD Ameritrade could be liable to Harrison’s victims for aiding and abetting his scheme.

In order to trade options in any brokerage account, the brokerage firm must perform a high level and detailed know your customer analysis. To qualify for the level of margin Harrison used, referred to as portfolio margin, the account owner in many cases has to take a test to even qualify for that level of margin clearance.  Furthermore, technical metrics and electronic log-ins and tracing would have revealed that Harrison was logging into multiple client accounts from the same device and IP address. Since he was unlicensed, he could not do this and TD Ameritrade’s compliance system should have caught on to what he was doing, but failed to do so.  FINRA Rules, Anti-Money Laundering, and Bank Secrecy Act regulations mandate that TD Ameritrade have adequate compliance systems to detect and deter violations of this sort.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating regulatory filings establishing that former Fifth Third and Merrill Lynch financial advisor David S. Wells has accepted a permanent bar from the securities industry. According to a publicly filed Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC) filed with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Wells accepted the lifetime ban in lieu of appearing for or providing information to FINRA pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210. Wells did not admit to any misconduct. He chose to accept a lifetime bar from the securities industry instead of sitting for an OTR (on the record) interview, answer questions, or provide information to FINRA.

According to David Wells’s FINRA broker/check report, he “resigned” from Fifth Third Securities on June 30, 2021 after admitting he misappropriated funds from three clients. There is no other information available publicly about how much Wells stole or whether he refunded the victims. One fact is certain: his registration with Fifth Third Securities gives victims a change to recover those stolen funds. As a a matter of law, Fifth Third Securities is responsible for the conduct of their agents, like David Wells. Fifth Third had a duty to supervise Wells, his office, his client accounts, and to exercise supervisory authority over Wells to prevent violations of securities rules and regulations. These supervision rules and regulations are a critical part of the securities industry regulatory system and brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch and Fifth Third Securities can be held liable for damages for failing to properly supervise financial advisors like David Wells.

FINRA wields mighty authority over the registered representatives they license under Rule 8210. When FINRA comes calling for information in connection with an investigation under FINRA Rule 8210, financial advisors have two options. 1) They can cooperate fully with FINRA’s investigation or 2) they can voluntarily accept a lifetime bar. It would seem obvious why a financial advisor would accept the life time bar – they do not want to provide FINRA with any information because FINRA is on to something.  Its not quite that simple however. Complying with and responding to a FINRA Rule 8210 request can be difficult and if done without counsel is not advisable. If the registered representative is not being supported by his brokerage firm, it can be a terrifying experience.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors have suffered losses from the negligence and breach of fiduciary duty of registered investment advisors (RIAs).  All too often brokers and RIAs trade in customers’ accounts to generate fees and commissions. This practice reduces their total returns while enriching broker-advisor firms. When regulators crack down on these practices, they usually find it’s a “failure to supervise” by the brokerage firm with whom the advisor is registered.

FINRA, the federal securities regulator, fined Next Financial Group, a $2.6 billion RIA and broker-dealer owned by Atria Wealth Solutions, $750,000 to settle charges that it failed to supervise ‘unsuitable’ trading of mutual funds and municipal bonds by one unnamed broker, according to citywireusa.com. “FINRA found that the broker engaged in short-term trading of Class A mutual fund shares in 19 client accounts, resulting in ‘unnecessary’ front-end sales charges of $925,000 from 2012 until February 19.” Additionally, FINRA found that “from June of 2013 to November of 2016, the broker engaged in short-term trading of Puerto Rican municipal bonds in 16 customer accounts, concentrating five of the accounts in these bonds.”

Certain classes of mutual funds and related investments carry higher commissions and fees than others. Broker-advisors are required to tell clients that trading in and out of these investments will generate higher income for the firm and its representatives. They are also required under FINRA rules to fully disclose the downside of the investments, which should be suitable for the client’s age and risk tolerance.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve stolen their money. Sometimes brokers are not the least bit subtle about what they do with clients’ assets. They may shift cash into separate accounts and spend it themselves.  Such was the case with Apostolos Pitsironis, a former Janney Montgomery Scott advisor. He is accused of stealing more than $400,000 from his clients from 2018-2019.

In the brokerage business, stealing clients’ funds is often known as “converting” their assets. Brokers may spend the money on gambling, cars or other consumption items. Pitsironis was “discharged in June 2019 after an internal investigation uncovered that the FA transferred funds via unauthorized ACHs from a client’s account to a third-party bank account owned and controlled by Pitsironis,” according to ThinkAdvisor.com. “He later used this money to pay his family’s personal expenses, all the while deceiving both his victims and the financial services firm for whom he worked,” prosecutors stated.  Pitsironis also allegedly spent his clients’ money on casino gambling debts, credit card bills and the lease of a luxury car.

“Janney is committed to serving our clients with the utmost integrity and trust,” the brokerage firm said in a statement obtained by ThinkAdvisor. “Upon discovering the improper actions taken by this advisor with one client account, he was promptly terminated, and the client was fully reimbursed. Janney has fully cooperated with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

Stoltmann Law Offices previously posted about Scott Wayne Reed, former broker at Wells Fargo Advisors, selling away to his customers, including customers of Wells Fargo. On December 15, 2020, the Arizona Corporation Commission filed a “Notice of Opportunity for Hearing Regarding Proposed Order to Cease and Desist, Order for Restitution, Order for Administrative Penalties, Order for Revocation and Order for Other Affirmative Action” against Reed, his wife, Sarah Reed, Pebblekick, Inc. and Don K. Shiroishi, the Chief Executive Officer and President of Pebblekick.

According to the ACC’s notice, Mr. Reed sold at least $3.5 million of investments in short-term, high-interest notes issued by Pebblekick. Mr. Reed sold these notes as offering an annualized rate of return of sixty-percent (60%). In turn, Pebblekick paid at least $191,340 to Reed. He sold these notes to clients as “100% safe” investments and represented that he also invested in Pebblekick. He went as far as personally guaranteeing $100,000 of the $200,000 investment made by one investor.Reed also sold other outside investment to customers, which he alleged were connected to Pebblekick, including but not limited to Precision Surgical, Mako Studio, and Ascensive Creator.

Reed was a registered representative of Wells Fargo Advisors at the time that he sold this investment, but did not disclose that he was selling notes in Pebblekick or that he received nearly $200,000 in commissions and fees for selling Pebblekick. According to the ACC, “when Reed’s firm reported him for potentially selling away and the Securities Division requested Reed to provide information and documents concerning the allegation, Reed impeded the Division’s investigation by providing responses that were false, incomplete, and misleading.”

Chicago-Based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is currently investigating reports that Michael Edward Magill raised $700,000 in purported private notes that turned out to be part of a criminal scheme. If you were sold investments by Mr. Magill and lost money as a result, you may have a claim to pursue to recover your investment losses through FINRA Arbitration.

According to a FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC) signed by Mr. Magill on December 7, 2020, Mr. Magill was hied by a private company to raise money for it. the FINRA allegations state that Mr. Magill solicited at least three investors to invest a total of $700,000 in this company, representing the investments as short term secured notes.  He urged investors to invest quickly because time was of the essence.  Mr. Magill was paid a salary by this company for his services and also received a commission for the investments he sold.  He also distributed marketing materials for the investments.  The investments were not registered with any regulatory agency and were sold in violation of applicable state and federal securities laws.  The principals of the company for whom Magill raised these funds pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

At all times relevant, Mr. Magill was a dually registered and licensed financial advisor with Foreside Fund Services and as a Registered Investment Adviser with WBI Investments, Inc. out of Boca Raton, Florida.  By virtue of FINRA Rules and the fiduciary duty owed by WBI Investments, both Foreside and WBI could be liable to investors who were caught-up in this scheme.  Stoltmann Law Offices has for many years pursued brokerage firms and investment advisers for these claims and has successfully recover money on victims’ behalf.  These companies have legal obligations to supervise the conduct of their registered representatives. Typically referred to in the securities industry as “selling away”, Magill allegedly did not advise the companies he was registered with of his illicit activities.  Nevertheless, there likely existed a stack of red flags that would have put Foreside Funds and WBI Investments on notice that Magill was participating in what was in reality a fraudulent scheme.

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.”

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