Articles Posted in FINRA

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 brokers whose firms promote high risk alternative investments and private placements. Did you know that brokerage firms can be held accountable when their brokers sell high-risk, illiquid investments that are unsuitable for their clients? Such was the case with Sanctuary Securities, which was forced to pay more than $530,000 in fines and restitution to investors for  “failures to supervise certain product sales,” according to Advisorhub.com.

Sanctuary was fined $160,000 and ordered to pay restitution of $370,161.39 plus interest “for the various supervisory failures dating as far back as 2014 that were uncovered over multiple FINRA examinations, according to a letter of acceptance, waiver and consent finalized on July 1.” Formerly David Noyes and Company, Indianapolis-based Sanctuary has about 190 registered brokers and 35 offices. The company said that no current employees were involved in this action. The FINRA enforcement action involved the firm’s sales of money-losing, risky products called “leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs).” These investments multiply gains and losses based on market movements of popular securities indexes. These “non-traditional” or “alternative” investments can lose money for investors if brokers or investors guess wrong on market movements.

According to FINRA, from January 2014 through December 2018, “Sanctuary did not sufficiently address the unique features and risks related to solicited sales of inverse and leveraged ETFs (collectively, non-traditional ETFs) as required by suitability obligations under FINRA Rule 2111. Around 30 brokers recommended customers purchase about $5 million worth of non-traditional ETFs, resulting in significant net losses for those who held their positions for extended periods of time. The firm, meanwhile, generated roughly $60,000 in commissions over the course of about 600 purchases in 150 customer accounts,” FINRA stated.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from brokers who churn customer accounts. One of the most perennial abuses in the brokerage industry is when broker-adviser “churn” accounts to generate extra commissions or fees. When that happens, it’s difficult for clients to make money because their accounts are consumed by transaction fees.

Marc Augustus Reda, a registered representative for Spartan Capital Securities in New York City, was recently charged by FINRA, the securities industry regulator, with overcharging clients some $2 million. “From 2017 through 2019,” reports fa-mag.com, “Reda, among other things, recommended unsuitable investments to his clients and traded excessively in those accounts, the FINRA complaint said. His activities resulted in 66 clients paying a total of $952,764 in commissions and fees, while incurring total net losses of $934,482,” FINRA said.

Reda generated the excessive fees through an “active trading” strategy in which he made trades without his clients’ specific permission. FINRA noted that “Reda failed to consider that the substantial commissions and costs associated with his investment strategy made it unlikely his customers could make any profits.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with financial advisors and insurance agents who sell unsuitable insurance products. All too often, securities brokers who lose their licenses to sell stocks, bonds, and mutual funds find an escape hatch to remain in the financial services industry: They move on to sell insurance products. These “rogue” brokers, however, haven’t necessarily changed their ways. They may continue their abusive sales practices by selling insurance products instead.

A recent academic paper profiling “wandering” financial advisers who jump from securities to insurance found that “a little over one-third of advisors who exit the brokerage industry remain in at least one other regime, that advisors are significantly more likely to change regimes after committing serious misconduct, and that wandering advisors with a history of misconduct are significantly more likely to engage in future misconduct.”

In this study, “regime” means transitioning from selling securities to insurance products, noting “wandering advisors with a history of serious misconduct disproportionately end up in the highly-fragmented state insurance regimes.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses in the LJM Preservation and Growth Fund. When broker-dealers sell you investments, they are responsible for fully informing you of the risks at the point of sale. When they fail to give you an honest, transparent disclosure on what they are selling – and the investments tank — you may have an arbitration case that you can pursue to get your money back.

Cambridge Investment Research, Merrill Lynch, and other brokerage firms sold a mutual fund called the LJM Preservation and Growth fund to their customers. The fund’s “value plummeted 80% over two days in early February 2018, after brokers in the previous two years sold $18 million of its shares to more than 550 customers, prompted by sales calls in May 2016 from an LJM wholesaler,” the securities regulator FINRA stated. “The fund was liquidated and dissolved in March 2018.”

What made the fund so volatile that led to its demise? It employed a risky strategy called “uncovered options,” but failed to tell investors that it was a highly complex vehicle prone to catastrophic losses.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a Chicago-based investor rights law firm that offers nationwide representation to investors who suffer investment losses as a result of unscrupulous, negligent, or fraudulent misconduct of financial advisors. In a tale as old as time, people prefer to avoid paying taxes if they can do so legally. The legality of tax breaks can be a touchy and constantly developing subject.  An increasingly popular way for very wealthy land owners to generate massive tax write-offs is called the “conservation easement.”  Simply put, in exchange for promising not to develop land, in the name of conservation, a land owner promises not to develop the tract. By doing so, the value of the property depreciates – because it cannot be developed – and theoretically, the owner of the land gives up something of value – the right to develop and exploit the land.  The land owner then gets a tax deduction, which depends on two critically important factors: 1) the value of the property before the easement; and 2) the value after the easement. The spread between these two numbers is then used as a tax deduction.

And there is where the fraud begins, according to the IRS. Recent report published by Bloombergtax describes the increasing aggression with which the IRS and Department of Justice are prosecuting conservation easement transactions as crimes.  One very notable transaction being investigated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office involves former President, Donald Trump, and an approximate $25 million tax break he received in connection with a conservation easement on land he owned in upstate New York. The tax scam begins with the appraisal of the land at values exponentially higher than reality, to appraisals after the easement well-below reality.  That increases the spread – the tax loss – taken by the owner.  These appraisals are done by professional outfits with attorneys and appraisers who sign off on all of these deals, and who can find themselves in a serious lurch with authorities.

These conservation easements became increasingly complex over time, involving massive tracts of land and found themselves being marketed and sold by FINRA registered broker/dealers as Regulation D private placement investments.  The purpose of this scenario for investors is the tax break for the land owners trickles-down, through a series of complicated trusts and transactions, to the investor.  Sometimes investors get upwards of 10X their investment back in the form of a tax write off.  Usually, the write-off is for between 2X and 6X the investment. For example, if an investor puts $25K into a conservation easement offering 4X reduction, that investor can write-off $100,000 in income for tax purposes the next year.  For high income investors, that is a dream scenario.

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.”

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve sold their clients variable annuities. One thing we see constantly in our practice is older investors who’ve been sold variable annuities that are onerously expensive and nearly always fail to live up to expectations. Variable annuities are investment products that offer restrictive access to mutual funds with an insurance wrapper. They are expensive to buy and carry ongoing fees and expenses that eat away at investor return. They also offer a tax incentive that brokers love to use as a sales point that in reality provides no benefit to most investors.

The main reason why variable annuities are usually poor investments is that they charge several layers of fees to investors. Everyone gets a cut from the insurance company to mutual fund managers. It’s very difficult for anyone outside of the middlemen to make money. Brokers and their advisory firms, however, sell them aggressively because the insurance companies that pilfer annuities pay out huge commissions to the salesmen who sell them.

Broker-advisors are perennially being cited for variable annuity marketing abuses. Transamerica Financial Advisors was recently fined $8.8 million by FINRA for “failing to supervise its registered representatives’ (brokers) recommendations for three different products,” which included annuities. The firm was ordered to pay more than $4 million in restitution.  The FINRA settlement cited Transamerica’s failure to monitor transactions that involved clients switching from other investments to annuities, which generated millions in commissions and fees for the firms. This is an egregious practice in the brokerage industry that mostly focuses on older and retired investors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims of investment fraud against Altoona, Wisconsin based investment adviser, Michael Shillin. According to FINRA, the national regulator for brokers and brokerage firms, Shillin was registered with Alliance Global Partners from May 2018 until he submitted his resignation on October 2, 2020. Previously, Shillin was registered with Raymond James Financial, from where he was terminated for cause, according to FINRA.

Brokerage firms like AGP and Raymond James have legal obligations to supervise and monitor the conduct of their financial advisors.  Legally, individual brokers like Shillin are an extension of their firms, so long as their conduct is performed within the course and scope of providing investment advice. If you are a victim of any of Shillin’s misconduct, you have rights and could have a claim to pursue against the brokerage firm he was registered with at the time.

On December 21, 2020, FINRA barred Mr. Shillin from the securities industry permanently for filing to respond to a request for information under FINRA Rule 8210. According to FINRA, Shillin was alleged to have falsified documents and emails in connection with a phony life insurance policy.  He is also alleged to have represented to a client that he bought shares of Space-X for their account but instead may have converted the funds. Instead of cooperating with FINRA with respect to the agency’s investigation into these allegations made by clients, Mr. Shillin chose to accept a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

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