Articles Posted in Private equity

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is representing investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with financial advisors who fleece older clients. In our practice, we’ve seen countless scams where older investors are lured into fraudulent investments. Unfortunately, investment and financial advisors frequently exploit and rip off elderly clients, who are often trusting yet vulnerable.

Common ruses involve “estate planning” seminars that come with a “free” lunch or dinner. Afterwards, brokers are known to peddle scam investments to those who show up. Lately though, investors are aggressively pitched through emails, texts and phone calls. These swindles mushroomed during the pandemic. According to the FBI, the number of scams targeting Americans over the age of 60 exploded during the pandemic, with upwards of 92,000 victims in 2021 alone involving estimated losses of nearly $2 billion, a 74% increase from 2020.

In the typical phone scam, fraudsters call older Americans, who are most likely to pick up the phone and listen to a pitch – and send money. Even former FBI and CIA director William Webster was targeted in a Jamaican lottery scam in 2014 when a caller claimed he won a sweepstakes, reports CBS News. The unsolicited caller became threatening when Webster declined to pay $50,000 to collect the winnings.  “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you,” Webster warned in a public service announcement.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C., is a Chicago-based investor rights law firm offering services nationwide to victims of investment fraud on a contingency fee basis. Our attorneys are currently investigating allegations raised against National Realty Investment Advisors LLC, a New Jersey-based real estate investment company. On June 7, 2022, NRIA filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code, Case No. 22-14539, in the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey. The court filings indicate that NRIA raised money from investors through dozens of private placement investments over several years through dozens of subsidiary-LLCs.  If you invested in one of these dozens of private placements, your investment is certainly at risk. If you were solicited by a financial advisor, investment advisor, accountant, or lawyer to invest in these private placements, you may have an actionable claim to recover your investment.

In 2021, an investigation was launched by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Alabama Department of Securities, the New Jersey Securities Division, and the Illinois Securities Department into the working of NRIA and investor solicitations.  A whistleblower also filed a report with the SEC alleging NRIA was running a massive Ponzi scheme.  According to Barrons, the US Attorney’s office has also subpoenaed NRIA seeking testimony in front of a grand jury.  This article also points out that NRIA has over 2,000 investors holding $540 million in securities issued by NRIA and its myriad subsidiaries. In February 2021, a former employee of NRIA, Tom Salzano of NRIA was arrested by the FBI for using fake documents to try and extract money from a NRIA investor. Mr. Salzano has not been convicted and is presumed innocent.

When financial advisors or other professionals recommend private placement investments like those offered by NRIA, they have duties and obligations to their clients to fully vet the deals before the recommend them. It is likely that sufficient red flags existed about NRIA, most notably some of the outlandish representations made in commercials including on YouTube about its promised rates of return, that any professional recommending this investment could be liable to the investor for losses.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors who’ve suffered losses from alternative investments. Some brokers like to pitch investors on the idea of making a lot of money by investing in alternative investments, mostly because brokers get paid handsome commissions for selling them.  GPB Capital and more recently, GWG Holdings are examples of alternative investments that were pushed hard by brokerage firms, with terrible results. There is a sub-category of these investments called “liquid alternative”, which are complex and costly for clients.

FINRA, the U.S. securities industry regulator, recently issued a warning about liquid “alts,” which invest in assets “other than stocks and bonds — such as real estate, commodities and derivatives — to give retail investors exposure to alternative investments in a vehicle that can be traded daily. They are touted as a way to beat market returns but also can be risky and expensive.”

“While these funds may be appropriate for some investors,” the regulator’s warning stated, “FINRA has consistently emphasized the importance of member firms’ sales practice obligations for these and other products, especially when such products may carry additional risks for customers.” These products are inappropriate for investors unless their objective is speculation – plain and simple.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices represents investors nationwide on a contingency fee basis who’ve been victimized by Ponzi schemes. One of the most notorious Ponzi schemes in recent years involved Horizon Private Equity, which bilked some $110 million from 400 investors. The operators of the scheme have been sued by investors in a class action lawsuit, but some investors have viable individual claims to pursue against Oppenheimer through FINRA Arbitration. The fund was sold by brokers at Oppenheimer.

An investor class-action suit claims “Oppenheimer management, from 2008 through December 31, 2016, actively aided” John J. Woods (the lead seller for Horizon); his brother, defendant James Wallace Woods; and their cousin, defendant Michael J. Mooney, each a financial adviser at the firm, with funneling investor money into Horizon.” The Horizon scheme “continued to raise money from unsuspecting investors through Southport Capital, a registered investment advisory firm, for nearly five more years,” the suit alleges. The alleged Ponzi scheme, according to the suit, “made no significant profits from legitimate investments, and `returns’ to investors came instead from new investor money.”

On August 20 2021, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed an emergency action against Woods, Southport Capital and Horizon Private Equity, III, LLC for “alleged violations of federal securities fraud, with the intent of freezing the parties’ assets, appointing a receiver and gaining a full accounting of the finances involved.”

Stoltmann Law Offices, a Chicago-based securities, investor, and consumer rights law firm has spoken to victims of the DeepRoot Funds scam and continues to investigate claims against third parties to recover these losses. On August 20, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Robert J. Mueller, DeepRoot Funds, LLC, Policy Services, Inc., and several other “relief defendants” alleging that Mueller and DeepRoot abused their roles as investments advisors to the two primary DeepRoot funds; the 575 Fund, LLC and the Growth Runs Deep Fund, LLC. The SEC flat-out alleges that Mueller used these funds as his personal piggy bank, including paying for weddings to wives number 2 and 3, and paying for the divorce from wife number 2.  Investors are likely looking at a total loss of funds invested amounting to nearly $58 million. Because the SEC has already gone after Mueller and the Funds, investors need to look for viable third parties that could have liability for investor losses.

The first and most obvious target for investors here would be the financial or investment advisor that solicited the transactions in the first place.  If your RIA or broker solicited you to invest in DeepRoot, it is almost certain this solicitation constituted a breach of fiduciary duty. RIAs will, with a straight face, ask clients in these situations rhetorically “how were we supposed to know?” Well, the investment advisor with the licenses, training, education, and statutory fiduciary duties to their clients are paid to know.  Whether your advisor is a FINRA registered broker or a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), they have obligations to understand and know the products they sell to their clients.  On their faces, these DeepRoot Funds were unregistered, private, unproven, and speculative private-investment plays. Right there is enough information to disqualify these funds for investment by almost every retail investor in America.

To put it bluntly, the law obligates fiduciary investment advisors to understand the risks and characteristics of the investments they offer to their clients. Failing to do so constitutes a breach of a fundamental and basic duty. Investment advisors can be liable to their clients for this fundamental breach of duty. How are they supposed to know? They are paid to know and they are licensed professionals who are obligated to know whether the fund that are recommending uses investor funds to legitimately invest, or, as with DeepRoot, used investor funds to pay for divorces, a wedding, amongst other abuses.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. is a Chicago-based securities and investor rights law firm that offers representation on a contingency fee basis to victims of investment fraud nationwide. On August 20, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a complaint in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia (Atlanta) alleging that John Woods “has been running a massive Ponzi scheme for over a decade.” That is the first line of the complaint, which goes on to allege that more than 400 investors are owed over $110,000,000 on alleged investments in Horizon Private Equity Group, III, LLC.  The complaint also names Livingston Group Asset Management Company, d/b/a Southport Capital, which is a registered investment adviser firm owned and controlled by John Woods.

The sales pitch for these investments in Horizon promised returns of 6-7% interest guaranteed for 2 or 3 years.  These are not the sort of huge returns typically promised in a Ponzi scheme. In fact, these are pretty low returns when compared to the rate of return on the S&P 500 or even alternative investments like non-Traded REITs.  Ironically, now disgraced GPB Capital – which is also alleged by the SEC to be a massive Ponzi scheme, promised returns of 8%.  This sort of Ponzi scheme is more incendiary and falls into the Bernie Madoff category of promising lower, but consistent, rates of return. Investors who are victims of a Ponzi scheme promising 6-7% returns cannot say they should have known better because it was too good to be true.  Woods and his RIA represented that they would take investor funds and invest them in government bonds, stocks, and real estate projects. Investors were never told their money would be used to pay interest to earlier investors, which is what the SEC alleged they did on a massive scale. Horizon did not earn nearly enough returns through legitimate investments to pay investor interest payments and as such had to rely on new investor money to maintain those interest payments – a hallmark of a Ponzi scheme.

Victims need to look to potentially liable third parties for recovery while the SEC freezes Woods’ and Horizon’s assets and begins an accounting process that will likely take years.  The first target could be Oppenheimer.  According to the SEC complaint and FINRA, Woods was a registered representative for Oppenheimer until he was “asked to resign” in 2016 for failing to accurately disclose his involvement with Southport and Horizon. Many of his Oppenheimer clients invested in Southport and Horizon and unless Oppenheimer reached out to each of those clients and warned them that what Woods was doing was, at a minimum, not fully disclosed to Oppenheimer in violation of FINRA rules, then Oppenheimer could have liability to victims here.  Further, the SEC complaint states that Horizon primarily used two banks to move money, Bank of America and Iberiabank. They also used a custodial trust company.  These entities, depending on the details of their involvement, could also have liability to victims of this scam.

Stoltmann Law Offices previously posted about Scott Wayne Reed, former broker at Wells Fargo Advisors, selling away to his customers, including customers of Wells Fargo. On December 15, 2020, the Arizona Corporation Commission filed a “Notice of Opportunity for Hearing Regarding Proposed Order to Cease and Desist, Order for Restitution, Order for Administrative Penalties, Order for Revocation and Order for Other Affirmative Action” against Reed, his wife, Sarah Reed, Pebblekick, Inc. and Don K. Shiroishi, the Chief Executive Officer and President of Pebblekick.

According to the ACC’s notice, Mr. Reed sold at least $3.5 million of investments in short-term, high-interest notes issued by Pebblekick. Mr. Reed sold these notes as offering an annualized rate of return of sixty-percent (60%). In turn, Pebblekick paid at least $191,340 to Reed. He sold these notes to clients as “100% safe” investments and represented that he also invested in Pebblekick. He went as far as personally guaranteeing $100,000 of the $200,000 investment made by one investor.Reed also sold other outside investment to customers, which he alleged were connected to Pebblekick, including but not limited to Precision Surgical, Mako Studio, and Ascensive Creator.

Reed was a registered representative of Wells Fargo Advisors at the time that he sold this investment, but did not disclose that he was selling notes in Pebblekick or that he received nearly $200,000 in commissions and fees for selling Pebblekick. According to the ACC, “when Reed’s firm reported him for potentially selling away and the Securities Division requested Reed to provide information and documents concerning the allegation, Reed impeded the Division’s investigation by providing responses that were false, incomplete, and misleading.”

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.

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