Articles Posted in FSC Securities

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C, a Chicago-based securities law firm specializing in representing investors nationwide, continues to hear from investors who have suffered devastating losses in alternative investments.  One of the most common and popular alternative investments peddled by brokers over the last several years are “business development companies” or “BDCs”. The most common issuer of BDCs is a company called Franklin Square, and brokerage firms have pushed hundreds of millions of dollars in these speculative investments to unsuspecting investors for a decade.

FSKR, the publicly-traded BDC called FS KKR Capital Corp. (NYSE: FSKR), was created by the merger of four Franklin Square non-traded BDCs in December 2019:

  • FS Investment Corporation II (FSIC II)

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, 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 losses from dealing with unscrupulous investment brokers selling risky variable annuities.

Variable annuities are hybrid products that combine mutual funds within an annuity “wrapper.” As a retirement savings vehicle, you can invest in a variety of stock, bond and other funds that compound earnings tax free. Unlike “fixed” annuities, which pay a set rate of return and a guaranteed monthly payment, variables are not focused on guaranteed income and performance is based on market returns, so you could lose money. Both products provide a death “benefit,” that is, a lump-sum payment to survivors when the annuity holder dies.

The main reason variable annuities are often a bad deal for retirement investors is they are extremely expensive to own. In addition to sales commissions, mutual fund managers levy fees. There are also insurance-related expenses, riders, and other fees that act as a drag on return. Brokers often tout the tax “benefit” of owning a variable annuity, but then sell then to investors in their IRAs, which is a huge problem.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has been representing investors in FINRA arbitration cases involving the GPB Funds since March 2019, and we have filed dozens since. There is one common thread with GPB over the last year or so.  They consistently oversell “good news” which is followed up with more bad news.  Recently, GPB announced it had hired a new CFO – Someone who was going to right the ship and get those audited financials done so that GPB can comply with necessary SEC financial filing rules. Brokerage firms and their brokers who do not want to be sued for this mess, continuously promulgate the “good news”, trying to stave off investor complaints.  All that happens no matter the spin, is more bad news which brokerage firms and brokers do not tell their clients.

On  February 10, 2020 , GPB announced it would not be providing investors with IRS Form K-1 any time soon. So, as the lucky owner of units in a GPB fund, investors will have to wait to file their tax returns until GPB figures out how to send investors reliable tax documents.  Another mess created by GPB are for investors who received surprise IRS Form 1099-Rs because they or their brokers did not act fast enough last fall when GPB was bounced off of various trading platforms, including Charles Schwab. What this means is, those investors are being taxed as if they took a distribution of their GPB asset from their IRA.  So, if you invested $100,000 in a GPB fund in your IRA, and did not have it transferred to an IRA custodial firm, whatever the book value of the fund was on your statement, say $60,000, will be treated as an IRA distribution, and the investor likely will have to pay income tax on that amount. GPB is the gift that keeps on giving!

About a week after GPB announced that it could not even get tax forms to investors, another lawsuit was filed in Delaware Chancery Court against the fund by a group of angry investors.  This lawsuit, Lipman v. GPB Capital Holdings, LLC, Case No. 2020-0054, is a derivative suit filed against GPB on behalf of investors and the GPB Auto and Holdings II funds. The first paragraph of this complaint refers to David Gentile, Jeffrey Lash, and Jeffrey Schneider as “scoundrels who never should have been allowed to run a legitimate company.” Only days later, GPB was sued in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York by Volkswagen of America regarding control over three dealerships. This lawsuit relates back to David Rosenberg, who was the head of these three Volkswagen dealerships. He blew the whistle on GPB to the SEC, warning the regulator that GPB was engaging in financial fraud. GPB terminated him and Volkswagen alleges that this termination violated the agreement between GPB and the car company. The more things change with GPB, the more things stay the same. At the end, it is the investors left holding the bag.

The news continues to get worse for the thousands of retail investors with money locked-up in various GPB Capital Funds. Those funds include the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Waste Management Fund, and GPB Fund II, amongst others. Stoltmann Law Offices has been investigating these funds for several months. We have filed roughly two dozen FINRA Arbitration claims on behalf of our clients to recover their losses in these funds from the brokerage firms responsible for soliciting them to invest in these ill-fated private placements.

On November 22, 2019, GPB sent a letter to their “partners” informing them of some really bad news.  The recent indictment of GPB Capital’s Chief Compliance Officer by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for obstruction of justice, amongst other claims, has caused the auditing process to fall off the rails. All of those promises by GPB to investors, all of those promises repeated by financial advisors to their clients, that GPB was well on its way to finally providing restated, audited financial statements, have officially been broken. The letter states that GPB’s auditor has “decided to suspend work on outstanding financial statement audits. In addition, the Audit Committee has elected to resign effective ups the earlier of the completion of the Rosenberg Investigation or by November 27, 2019.” The “Rosenberg investigation” is the self-implemented third party investigation into how the company’s CCO obstructed justice, and what GPB knew and when it knew it. Well, according to the indictment, detailed on this blog last month, GPB hired the CCO with knowledge that he had confidential information obtained from his participation in the SEC’s investigation of GPB. They knew he had  obtained information from the SEC in the course of its investigation, it would seem, and GPB made him their chief compliance officer.

The November 22, 2019 notice also eviscerates another false narrative promoted by GPB and passed along to clients by financial advisors, who are scrambling at this point to come up with excuses.  Despite operating in a red-hot economy where car sales are through the roof, the GPB Automotive Fund has managed to lose over $200 million and GPB Holdings II has lost roughly $125 million.  To add insult to injury to the investors stuck holding this rapidly depreciating asset, GPB is not allowing investors to unload their units on secondary markets.  Unfortunately for investors, this is what a Ponzi scheme looks like when it is no longer able to attract new investor money.

Stoltmann Law Offices continues to investigate and file cases on behalf of investors in connection with the GPB Capital Funds.  On November 6, 2019, a new lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Texas, in Austin, that provides a new level of detail about the scam being run by GPB Capital for the last six years or so. The complaint is filed as a class-action complaint on behalf of an investor, and all similarly situated, in any of the several GPB Capital Funds. The case, Barasch v. GPB Capital Holdings, et al., Case No. 19-cv-01079, alleged civil conspiracy, fraud, and violations of various securities laws. The complaint offers a glimpse into the multiple layers of gross conflicts of interest that permeated, intentionally, throughout the entire GPB Capital universe. From the auditors to the placement agents, at every level of the organization, conflicts existed from which GPB Capital actively sought, and did, capitalize. The complaint alleges that the 8% return guaranteed by GPB Capital was a farce. The truth is, according to the allegations, the 8% distributions were paid with other investor money, or the actual investor’s money meaning it was actually a return OF investment, as opposed to a return ON investment. The complaint references misleading and fraudulent account statements generated by GPB Capital representing these payments as “distributions” when in reality the fund was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Stoltmann Law Offices has been retained by dozens of investors to purse claims involving GPB Capital Holdings, including the following GPB Funds:

    • GPB Automotive Portfolio, LP

The smoke has been steadily rising from GPB Capital Holdings for about a year at this point. Over the last few months, however, it has been all quite on the GPB Capital front. The main talking points being communicated by GPB Capital to brokers and financial advisors to then deliver to their investor-clients, have been that everything at GPB Capital is fine and that the audited financial statements will be delivered in no time. Well, as the Wizard of Oz said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Just today, InvestmentNews published a story reporting that an executive at GPB Capital has been indicted for obstruction of justice. Nothing happening indeed.

According to a press release issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, a superseding indictment was unsealed charging Michael S. Cohn, Managing Director and Chief Compliance Officer with obstruction of justice, unauthorized computer access, and unauthorized disclosure of confidential information. According to the indictment, Mr. Cohn was an employee of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) when he left the commission for a position with GPB Capital Holdings. In the course of that transition, Mr. Cohn is alleged to have stolen investigatory files and materials relevant to the ongoing SEC investigation into GPB Capital and then delivered those materials to his brethren at GPB Capital. FBI Assistant director-in-charge William Sweeney was quoted in the press release stating, “When Cohn left the SEC to join GPB, he left with more than his own career ambitions.” What’s worse, when Cohn was interviewing for his job with GPB, he let them know he had this information and shared it. The grand jury indictment  contains allegations, which if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, could land Mr. Cohn in prison for decades.

The fact that GPB Capital hired Mr. Cohn after he told them that he had inside information about the SEC’s ongoing investigation into GPB, is as clear an indication yet that GPB Capital is running an unreliable and highly questionable business, where at a minimum, ethics are of no concern. Investors should be concerned about this latest development because it indicates a few important points. First, it’s an indication that the SEC’s investigation into GPB is still ongoing. Second, the indictment reflects the acts of an allegedly corruptible person who was entrusted at GPB with being the company’s chief compliance officer – a position for the incorruptible. It is staggering that GPB would hire Mr. Cohn after he approached the firm with clearly illegally obtained information and highly confidential documents.

On August 2, 2019, a class action complaint was filed against GPB Capital Holdings and several affiliated entities in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 19-cv-7250. There are two named plaintiffs, one an investor in the GPB Automotive Fund, there other an investor in the GPB Holdings Fund II. The class action is actually quite limited in scope, broadly alleging that the investors have been damaged by GPB Capital because the funds have collectively failed to provide audited financial statements as required by the private offering memoranda and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The class action complaint has two counts: breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. There are no allegations of fraud or other misconduct and the complaint parrots many of the published claims about GPB, including many of the same facts identified on this blog before.

Investors should not be lulled into complacency by the filing of this class action complaint, as if it will be from where their investment losses are recovered. Investors need to continue to honestly assess their individual situations and determine whether their financial advisors or brokers sold them these funds based on misrepresentations or omissions of material fact.  Many of the GPB investors represented by Stoltmann Law Offices have made allegations of unsuitability and breach of fiduciary duty against the brokerage firm responsible for selling GPB Funds to them. Those FINRA arbitration claims also include other alternative investments too, because brokers who sell private placements tend to sell more than just one. Many of our investors have serious concentration issues, with substantial percentages of their assets under management – some near 100% – in alternative, private placements including the GPB Funds.

GPB Capital utilized a network of independent brokerage firms, including Madison Avenue Securities, FSC Securities, Royal Alliance, amongst about 60 others, to sell almost $2 billion worth of their securities to retail investors. Now investors are locked into investments that have been marked down up to 70% in some instances, with no dividends being paid, and with a constant drip of negative news. Brokers are telling their clients not to worry; to sit tight; to wait it out. Advisors are telling investors this will “blow over” and that GPB will be paying dividends again in no time. These “lulling” statements should not be relied on by investors. Brokers and advisors have no more information about what is happening inside GPB Capital than the investors do at this point, and any statement or advice from a broker to “hold tight” is self-serving. Investors should ask their brokers 1) how much money in commissions they were paid to sell them GPB Funds; and 2) ask to see the due diligence file the broker created on GPB prior to selling it. The responses will not be friendly.

The news just keeps getting worse for investors in GPB Capital Holdings. On July 19, 2019, a former GPB Capital business partner sued GPB Capital in Norfolk County, Massachusetts court alleging, amongst other things, that GPB Capital has been engaged in a massive Ponzi-like scheme for some time. The allegations are in connection with a $230 million deal gone wrong, including that this former partner was forced out of GPB Capital after complaining to the SEC about the company’s financial misconduct.  The complaint alleges that GPB Capital uses investor money to prop-up flailing auto-dealerships it owns and also uses investor funds to make interest or distribution payments to other investors – the hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. The complaint alleges that GPB Capital also engaged in an elaborate coverup to cause investors to believe their investments were safe.

As we have discussed on several posts on this cite, GPB Capital has run into trouble in numerous ways. GPB Capital raised almost two-billion dollars from retail investors beginning in 2013 from an array of brokerage firms, including Cetera Advisors, FSC Capital, and Royal Alliance, amongst others. Abruptly in late 2018, GPB Capital’s auditor resigned, which is almost always a bad sign. Then GPB Capital announced it was under investigation by a slew of regulators and law enforcement.  It was then informed by National Financial Services, an affiliate of Fidelity, that it would no longer allow GPB Capital securities to be held on its account statements.  In response to that, GPB Capital rushed to provide an “accurate” Net-Asset-Value (NAV) which reduced the value of its funds by anywhere from 35% to 50%.  These massive markdowns caused sticker-shock when investors received their monthly account statements and they saw the historically “stable” investment suddenly reflecting massive losses.  Investors are now rightly looking at the the financial advisors and brokerage firms responsible for soliciting and selling units in GPB Capital to them.

Brokerage firms have many duties and obligations when they sell clients investments in private placements like GPB Capital Holdings. Initially, a brokerage cannot even approve an offering in a private placement to be sold by their brokers until the firm engages in a due diligence investigation. Only after this investigation meets with the approval of the firm can it sell the investment to their clients. These duties and obligations are encoded in FINRA Rule 2111 Suitability Rule and at least a half-dozen Regulatory Notices, including RN-10-22 which is an opus on brokerage firm due diligence responsibilities to perform due diligence on private placements prior to offering them to firm clients, NASD NTM 03-71 which speaks to a firm’s obligations to vet non-conventional investments, and NTM 05-26 which discusses the vetting of new products.  This vetting process is mired in a massive conflict of interest. Brokerage firms like FSC and Royal Alliance were paid at least 7% commissions for selling GPB Capital.  If the investment never gets past the due diligence step, then the firms and brokers can’t reap those huge commissions!

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