Articles Posted in FINRA Enforcement

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.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors in cases against securities brokers and has been investigating claims against LPL and filing arbitration complaints for investors. Can securities brokers who’ve been fleecing investors somehow keep working in the industry? If a firm’s records systems are poorly managed, sadly, the answer is yes. Sometimes they slip through the cracks and continue to steal customers’ funds and place them in bad or fraudulent investments that turn out to be Ponzi schemes.

That was the case with former LPL broker James T. Booth, who worked for the firm from 2018 through 2019. Booth pled guilty to one count of securities fraud in October, 2019, and was barred from the industry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). LPL was also cited for “supervisory deficiencies” by FINRA, the industry regulator, in connection with Booth stealing “at least $1 million of LPL customers’ money as part of a multi-year Ponzi scheme,” according to thediwire.com. The regulator fined LPL $6.5 million.

There was a bigger problem at LPL, though: FINRA claims that LPL’s recordkeeping system failed to report millions of customer communications. The firm’s failure “affected at least 87 million records and led to the permanent deletion of more than 1.5 million customer communications maintained by a third-party data vendor. These included mutual fund switch letters, 36-month letters, and wire transfer confirmations that were required to be preserved for at least three years.”

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.”

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 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 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  represents investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers. On April 28, 2020, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) Department of Enforcement filed a complaint against an ex-Ameriprise representative, alleging he converted more than $42,000 of an elderly client’s funds for his own use. Sean Michael Refsnider, of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, was a representative at Ameriprise from 2012 until Aug. 20, 2019. The company stated he was fired after it concluded that his client’s funds were “misappropriated.” FINRA is the chief U.S. regulator of broker dealers.

According to the FINRA complaint, Refsnider allegedly “procured a check from `Customer A’ in the amount of $20,000 and then used the funds to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses.” Refsnider allegedly also had used a debit card linked to the client’s account to make purchases totaling about $17,317, in addition to $4,300 in cash withdrawals, the complaint said. Ameriprise said in a statement that it “quickly detected and stopped the activity, ensured the client was fully reimbursed, terminated the advisor and notified the proper authorities.”

In the past, Ameriprise has been cited by regulators for failure to protect customer assets. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined Ameriprise $4.5 million in 2018 to settle charges “that it failed to safeguard retail investor assets from theft by its representatives.” According to the SEC’s order, five Ameriprise representatives “committed numerous fraudulent acts, including forging client documents, and stole more than $1 million in retail client funds over a four-year period.” The SEC also found that Ameriprise, a registered investment adviser and broker-dealer, “failed to adopt and implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to safeguard investor assets against misappropriation by its representatives.” The five Ameriprise representatives were based in Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia, and three previously pled guilty to criminal charges. Each of the representatives was terminated by Ameriprise for misappropriating client funds and barred from selling securities by FINRA.

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