Articles Posted in FINRA Arbitration

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 representing investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve hidden their outside financial activities. Sometimes, brokers have “side deals” while working at an advisory firm, which they may pitch to existing clients. In a heavily regulated industry, they have to tell their employers and these so-called “outside business activities”, including outside brokerage accounts. When they fail to disclose their other businesses, they can be fired.

FINRA, the federal securities regulator, fined and suspended an ex-Wells Fargo broker “who was terminated by the wirehouse for failing to close three outside brokerage accounts despite being told to do so numerous times by the firm,” according to ThinkAdvisor.com. Without admitting or denying FINRA’s findings, Jacob Popek signed a FINRA Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent on Aug. 31 “in which he consented to the imposition of a $2,500 fine and a three-month suspension from associating with any FINRA member in all capacities.” Wells Fargo declined to comment.

Between November 2018 and April 2020, FINRA stated, “while associated with Wells Fargo, Popek maintained outside brokerage accounts without the firm’s written consent. In October 2018, Popek informed the firm that he maintained three outside brokerage accounts at two other member firms.” Wells Fargo said it “directed Popek to close those accounts. But despite receiving that instruction and multiple subsequent instructions from the firm to close the accounts in 2019, he maintained each of these accounts until July 2019, December 2019, and April 2020, respectively,” according to 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 has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with financial advisors who’ve stolen their money. Can a financial adviser ask you to pay him personally to buy investments? If he does, it may be considered theft. Former NY Life Securities broker Jeffrey Scott Anderson was barred by FINRA, the federal securities industry regulator, after he was accused of stealing approximately $26,600 from an elderly client.

According to FINRA, “Anderson convinced an elderly NYLife customer to write five checks totaling $26,600 from October through December 2019 to him personally to purchase investments and insurance. Rather than using the funds for those purposes, FINRA claims that he deposited the money into his bank account and paid personal expenses.” Anderson resigned in March 2020 after “an internal review raised a number of concerns regarding the quality of his business, including repeat replacement and suitability concerns and undisclosed customer complaints.”

Later that year, NY Life disclosed two other customer complaints against him, including one from a customer who provided NYLife with “copies of three personal checks…which were made payable to and endorsed by [Anderson] totaling $16,500.” After he left NY Life, Anderson’s BrokerCheck profile showed other customer theft issues: “Anderson became registered with Pruco Securities but was fired less than three months later for misappropriating funds from a customer while associated with another FINRA member and submitting altered documentation to company investigators during its internal investigation.”

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 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.

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.

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