Articles Posted in LPL Financial

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 investors who’ve suffered losses as a result of financial advisors who sell investments that are technically “unauthorized” by their firms. These side gigs, while profitable for the broker due to high commissions, are prohibited by FINRA, the industry regulator.

Brokers may pitch clients on a private securities transaction, for example. Of course, the investors rarely have any clue that what they are being asked to invest in is “unauthorized” or a “private securities transaction.” Sometimes these take the form of stock offerings that are unlisted. Broker Henry A. Taylor III, for example, then working for the Cetera brokerage firm, sold $30,000 in private stock that invested in a trucking firm. Taylor did not notify his firm of the sale and had initially deposited his client’s check in his personal account.

After a FINRA arbitration claim was filed, the regulator fined Taylor $7,500 and suspended him for three months earlier this year. Taylor neither admitted nor denied the findings of the FINRA action. The original transaction took place three years ago.

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 exchange-traded products. Many of these high-risk products are unsuitable for retail investors.

With the COVID-19 crisis roiling financial markets, many investors have been sold products that rise when market indexes or individual securities fall. Many “exchange-linked products” (ETPs) often use borrowed money, or leverage, to magnify gains when the market drops, but they can also increase losses. They are generally only suitable for sophisticated investors and are linked to complex underlying futures contracts.

When the coronavirus crisis first made major headlines in the U.S. in early March, the stock, bond and commodities markets crashed. Since markets over-react to widespread greed and fear, traders went into mass selling mode over (later justified) expectations that demand for nearly everything from luxury goods to commodities would drop dramatically.

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.

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.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a securities investor protection law firm offering representation nationwide to investors seeking to recover investment losses.  Our team is monitoring and reviewing information in connection with former LPL  financial advisor Donald Stephen Woods. According to published reports, Mr. Woods, of Louisville, Kentucky and currently registered with Thurston Springer Financial, intentionally manipulated and changed documents at LPL to qualify non-traded REIT sales that would have otherwise not been approved. LPL has certain limitations on how much of an investor’s declared liquid net worth can be concentrated in alternative investments, like non-Traded REITs.  Typically, LPL limits this exposure to 25% of liquid net worth, but can be lower for elderly investors and those with more conservative investment objectives. Brokers like Woods get around this limitation by inflating the client’s net worth numbers adjusting them upwards by a few hundred thousand dollars can be the difference between compliance approving the transaction and the broker getting paid his massive commission, and not approving it, leaving the broker to find something else to sell the client.

Ultimately, the responsibility for this sort of amateur chicanery engaged in by Mr. Woods falls on his firm. Stoltmann Law Offices has represented hundreds of investors in cases just like this. Almost always, there is an obvious disconnect or contradiction between the net worth numbers on the alternative investment forms, and the client’s new account forms. Compliance has a responsibility to ensure that brokers like Mr. Woods are not artificially inflating client net-worth numbers on these forms in order to qualify them for the investment. Most of the time all it would take is a simple phone call from compliance to the client to determine the accuracy of these numbers and reveal that the broker either forged the documents altogether, or advised the client to ignore the net worth numbers included on the form, to trust their adviser, and not worry about it.

Non-Traded REITs have been selling at rates not seen since before the financial crisis in 2008. There is one reason for this – commissions.  Non-Traded REITs like those offered by Northstar, Cottonwood, Highlands REIT, KBS Growth & Income REIT, Resource Innovation Office REIT, and InvenTrust Properties Corp., pay brokers like Mr. Woods and their firms like LPL commission rates that are many times higher than if they just sold clients publicly-traded, liquid REITs.  The SEC, FINRA, and NASAA all warn about issues related to these non-traded REITs.  Scholarly articles decry them as being poor investments long term compared to their publicly-traded cousins. Some of the issues about these non-traded REITs include:

Stoltmann Law Offices has brought arbitration claims against dozens of brokerage firms like Ameriprise Financial, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Securities involving the unsuitable recommendations for investors to invest in oil and gas related securities.  In 2014 and 2015, we represented dozens of investors against various firms involving Master Limited Partnerships, or MLPs, which are almost always related to the oil and gas industry.  Then, during a big drop in the price of oil, a lot of oil and gas companies went into bankruptcy, dragging a lot of investor money with them.  History is repeating itself.

The price of oil has completely tanked in the last month. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of oil was being pressured by a price war involving Saudi Arabia, Russia, and OPEC.  Combined with the broad-based ongoing market crash, oil and gas investments – which are inextricably linked to the price of oil – have suffered catastrophic losses.  There are some well-know names on this list:

Goldman Sachs MLP and Energy Renaissance Fund – GER: Year to Date has dropped from 4.37 to 0.68 per share

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to investigate investor claims and reports involving former Invest and LPL Financial  registered representative James T. Booth, of Norwalk, Connecticut, who was indicted on charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, and investment advisory fraud on September 30, 2019.  According to the unsealed indictment, Booth is alleged to have executed a Ponzi scheme which effectively converted almost $5 million from forty clients. The unsealed indictment was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 19-CRIM-699, and can be viewed here. Although Booth operated his own company called Booth Financial Associates, he was at all time relevant to this scheme a licensed and registered representative with FINRA member brokerage firms Invest Financial Corporation and LPL Financial.

As we previously discussed on this blog, James Booth was  terminated from LPL Financial on June 26, 2019 for allegedly converting $1 million from his clients. On July 1, 2019, Booth consented to a lifetime ban from the securities industry after FINRA investigated information provided to it by LPL established that Booth converted – or stole – $1 million from clients by depositing the funds into personal accounts for his own use. According to the FINRA Acceptance Waiver and Consent (AWC), Booth committed these alleged acts from approximately April 2014 to May 2019. Looking back, it appears that both LPL and FINRA underestimated the scope of this scam because the SDNY now alleges that Booth stole $4.9 million.

According to FINRA, numerous clients have filed complaints against Invest and LPL Financial to recover funds stolen by Booth. Some of these complaints have already been settled with full recoveries. FINRA Rules and securities industry regulations require brokerage firms like Invest Financial and LPL Financial to supervise their financial advisors. The foundation for this obligation to supervise to found in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which states:

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