Articles Posted in Private equity

Stoltmann Law Offices is a Chicago-based securities and investment fraud law firm that offers nationwide representation to victims of Ponzi schemes and other securities frauds.  We are currently investigating allegations made by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York that contend the Belize Infrastructure Fund I, LLC was a Ponzi scheme.  According to published reports, Minish “Joe” Hede and Kevin Graetz sold $9.6 million worth of promissory notes to their clients, many of whom were customers of their brokerage/dealer firm Paulson Investment Company.

According to the complaint filed by the SEC, Brent Borland, the principal of the Belize Infrastructure Fund who is also under indictment, approached Paulson Investment Company to act as “placement agent” for this fund. After the sales pitch, Paulson declined to act as the placement agent and disapproved of the investment. Whether Paulson Investment Company approved of the deal or not, meant nothing to Hede and Graetz who went on to sell almost $10 million worth of notes issued by the bogus company to at least 21 Paulson clients.  In so doing, Graetz and Hede violated numerous FINRA Rules and SEC rules and regulations by selling a fund that was not approved of by their broker dealer.  The SEC complaint also alleged that Hede and Graetz received hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit commissions from selling notes issued by the Belize Infrastructure Fund.

Paulson Investment Company can still be held liable for the conduct of the firm’s registered brokers, Hede and Graetz. First, even though Paulson Investment did not formally approve of these sales, Hede and Graetz were still registered with the firm as brokers when these sales occurred so that means Paulson had an obligation to supervise their activities pursuant to FINRA Rule 3010. Additionally, “red-flags” that brokers may be “selling away” increase that responsibility. Certainly, having sold almost $10 million in this fund to 21 Paulson clients means there was, at a minimum: 1) a paper trail that they were selling these notes; 2) communications via email discussing the Belize fund; 3) transactional records, including the sale of securities in the clients’ legitimate Paulson accounts in order to fund the Belize Fund investments; and 4) client meetings.  Furthermore, brokers with numerous disclosures on their CRD Report require firms to put those advisors on “heightened supervision.”  According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Graetz had numerous tax liens and customer complaints on his record before he started selling the Belize Fund to his clients.  Paulson Investment Company should have had him under a supervisory microscope. Instead, as is typical at brokerage firms like Paulson, the company invests minimally in its compliance and supervisory structure and brokers like Graetz and Hede end up selling firm clients almost $10 million in a Ponzi scheme.

Chicago-based securities law firm Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors in FINRA arbitrations nationwide recovering losses suffered in the GPB Capital Holdings group of funds, including the GPB Automotive Fund, GPB Holdings Fund II, and the GPB/Armada Waste Management Fund.

One of the appealing pitches that broker-dealers and investment advisers offer is the opportunity to invest in private companies with outstanding earnings potential, or in the case of GPB, relatively high annualized “interest” payments. Instead of buying shares in public companies on stock exchanges, the advisers sell interests in “closely held” companies, which are not listed on exchanges and not required to openly disclose their financial statements.

One such company was GPB Capital Holdings LLC, which has been the subject of federal and state litigation. GPB Capital is a New York City-based alternative investing firm that “seeks to acquire income-producing private companies.” So-called private placements have posed problems for investors in recent years because of sketchy financial disclosure and overselling.

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.

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.

Would you complain about your broker to the Financial Investor Regulatory Authority (FINRA) if you thought your odds of success were good?  They are, at least so far in 2019.  In the first half of 2019, investors won 44 percent of the arbitration cases they filed against brokers and brokerage firms from January through June of this year, according to FINRA statistics.  This is an improvements from the 38 percent investor win rate five years ago.

Another piece of good news for investors is mediation cases are being decided faster.  Mediation is a common way to resolve investor cases filed with FINRA without having to go through an arbitration hearing.   The turnaround time it takes to resolve cases through mediation has shrunk from 126 days to 93 days, a 26 percent improvement.

The number of private equity claims filed by investors cases are increasing as more of these types of investment products are appearing in the portfolios of retail investors with 63 claims filed in the first half of 2019 compared to 54 filed in all of 2018.  Investors are also bringing more actions involving Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) while claims involving Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) declined by close to half from January to June 2019 (60) compared to January to June 2018 (104).  Claims involving muni bonds, a mainstay of retirees aiming to safeguard their principal, have also dropped from 331 from 462.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. continues to investigate, file, and prosecute cases on behalf of investors that were burned in the volatility spike from early February 2018, including the Frontier Permo Fund. A few mutuals funds, like LJM Preservation and Growth Fund which invested in uncovered S&P 500 index options, were absolutely crushed in a matter of hours as the United States equity markets swung hundreds of points in minutes, sending the VIX into chaos and creating havoc for those holding options exposed to this volatility. Many other investments, including hedge funds and private placement funds, also had shocking losses in reaction to this volatility spike. One of those private funds was the Frontier Permo Fund.

The Permo Fund, offered in several iterations like the Esulep LLC Permo Fund, (Esulep is the name of the company’s CEO – John Peluse – spelled backwards, how clever) or the Frontier Permo Fund, LLC. Whatever the name, Esulep Management LLC has at all times been the manager and owner of the fund company. Permo Fund markets itself as an absolute return, pooled investment fund utilizing a proprietary trading strategy to maximize value and performance for its investors.  The fund generally invested in index options in February 2018, when the volatility spike caused serious dislocation in the market for S&P 500 index options. So much money had piled into short-VIX related options, that those same investors tended to be long the S&P 500. Because of Permo Fund’s exposure to S&P 500 index options, amongst other issues, the Permo Fund saw whipsaw losses of approximately 36% in days.

Frontier Wealth Management, a fiduciary Registered Investment Advisory firm headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, contracted with the Permo Fund in 2017 to raise capital for a pooled investment vehicle for their advisory clients to access the Permo Fund. According to a Form D filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, this private offering raised at least $27,900,000 from 148 investors, all likely fiduciary clients of Frontier Wealth Management. This offering was dated March 13, 2017 and less than a year later, the fund plummeted.  Clients of Frontier Wealth Management who were sold private placement interests in the Frontier Permo Fund may have claims to pursue against Frontier to recover those losses.

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