Articles Posted in Securities and Exchange Commission

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that financial advisor Scott Fries of Piqua, Ohio engaged in a Ponzi-like scheme , defrauding investors of nearly $200,000.  According to the complaint filed by the SEC last week, Fries raised approximately $178,000 from investors and used that money to pay personal expenses like his mortgage, payday loans, and credit cards. The SEC further alleges that Fries attempted to fraudulently conceal his activities by creating fake account statements which he delivered to his clients that purported to show their money invested in legitimate investments. The SEC alleges Fries’ misconduct violated several federal securities laws including Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b), and Rule 10b-5 thereunder, 17 C.F.R. 240.10b-5, Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 77q(a), and Sections 206(1) and 206(2) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 80b-6(1) and 80b-6(2).

Before the SEC took action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) barred Fries from the securities industry in November 2019 for violating FINRA Rule 8210. In response to being terminated for cause by his broker/dealer firm TransAmerica, FINRA launched an investigation into the allegations which led to Fries’ termination. If a broker/advisor fails to respond to these requests for information under FINRA Rule 8210, they can be barred for life from the securities industry. In many instances, brokers refuse to answer Rule 8210 requests because doing so would put them in the untenable position of having to answer question under oath.  It is likely, given the SEC’s allegations, that Fries chose not to answer FINRA Rule 8210 requests because it was not in his best interest for their to be a record of whatever this scheme actually was.

Investors who were caught up in this scheme run by Fries have legal options to attempt to recover their losses.  First and foremost, at all times relevant, Fries was a registered, licensed, representative of TransAmerica. This means victims – even those that were not contractual customers of TransAmerica – can file an arbitration action against TransAmerica to seek recovery of their losses. As a FINRA registered broker/dealer firm, TransAmerica is legally obligated to supervise the conduct of its financial advisors. This supervision requirement is rooted in the Securities Act and all applicable state laws, including myriad FINRA Rules and regulations, including FINRA Rule 3110.  Case law also supports the proposition that even non-customers of the firm can sue for the firm’s role in facilitating or failing to supervise their advisors. See McGraw v. Wachovia Securities, 756 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (N.D. Iowa 2010). When “red flags”of misconduct present themselves, firms like TransAmerica have a duty to act and to take steps to protect investors.

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.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against Robert Gravette, Mark MacArthur, and their Registered Investment Advisory firm, Criterion Wealth Management Insurance Services, Inc. According to the complaint filed by the SEC on February 12, 2020, Gravette and MacArthur orchestrated a scheme whereby they funneled their clients’ money into four private placement funds without disclosing that the fund managers, with whom they were personal friends, paid them compensation in excess of $1 million for doing so. This compensation arrangement was recurring, so Gravette and MacArthur had an undisclosed financial incentive to keep their clients’ money in these funds, as opposed to allocating the money elsewhere, when appropriate.  Further, the huge fees Gravette and MacArthur received reduced the investment returns that the investors would have otherwise received.  The SEC alleges that these acts violated the fiduciary duties owed by Gravette and MacArthur to their investment advisory clients, and constituted fraud.  The SEC complaint alleges an impressive list of federal statutory violations, including Sections 206(1), 206(2), 206(4), and 207 0f the Advisers Act, 15 U.S.C. sections 80b-6(1), 80b-6(2), 80(b)-6(4), and 80b-7, and Rule 206(4)-7 thereunder.

At all times relevant to these allegations, both Gravette and McArthur were dually registered representatives with a FINRA registered broker/dealer called Ausdal Financial Partners. According to the SEC, Ausdal Financial was involved in these transactions because Criterion opened accounts for them at Ausdal and the private placement funds were held on Ausdal’s account statements.  Under FINRA Rules and regulatory notices, Ausdal Financial, at all times relevant, had a duty to supervise the disclosed Advisory activities of its registered representatives.  See FINRA Rule 3280, NTMs 91-32, 94-44, and 96-33.  The dual-registration of investment advisors creates supervisory challenges for brokerage firms like Ausdal because under SEC Rules, they must maintain and record transactions like those entered into by their dually registered agents on their books and records, or its a violation.  Since they must maintain transaction records which they did by virtue of holding these funds on their account statements, they also must supervise those transactions and the activities of their registered representatives, even if they appeared to be acting solely on behalf of their advisory firm. FINRA does not care and neither should the victims of this scam, which was executed in plain sight.  Any competent compliance department would have supervised the transitions in these real estate private placement funds.

The very nature of these funds being “private placements” would have required an added measure of scrutiny by Ausdal compliance. Private placements tend to be speculative and exposed investors to unique risks like lack of liquidity, concentrated risk, key-man risk, and management risk not typically found in publicly traded investments like mutual funds.  The most substantial issue with a private placement is that they typically pay their brokers very high commissions compared to more standard investments.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating claims on behalf of defrauded victims of California Registered Investment Advisor Strong Investment Management. According to a complaint filed by the SEC on February 21, 2018, Strong and its President and sole owner Joseph B. Bronson defrauded its advisory clients by engaging in what is called a “cherry picking” scheme.   The complaint alleges that for at least four years Bronson abused his clients’ trust by earmarking profitable trades to himself while booking the losers in his clients’ accounts.  The complaint also alleged that Bronson and Strong misrepresented the trading strategy they were engaging in, stating that all trades were allocated pursuant to a pre-trade allocation statement. In reality, alleged the SEC, Bronson reaped substantial personal profits to his clients’ detriment.

On September 25, 2019, the SEC obtained a final judgment against Bronson and Orange County-based Strong Investment which were ordered to pay over $1 million in restitution to defrauded investors. Bronson also faces a lifetime bar from the securities industry. Cherry-picking schemes like that engaged in by Bronson are fairly common unfortunately.  On September 20, 2018, a Louisiana based investment advisory firm, World Tree Financial, was charged by the SEC with orchestrating a $54 million cherry picking scheme. In January 2017, the SEC uncovered another cherry-picking scheme engaged in by Massachusetts based investment advisory firm Strategic Capital Management with a $1.3 million cherry picking scheme.  The list of investment advisors that have engaged in this scheme goes on and on.

Cherry Picking schemes are pretty easy to execute which is why they’re fairly common.  A lot of investment advisors use omnibus accounts to trade their clients’ investments in bulk and then allocate the gains and losses directly to client accounts pursuant to an allocation practice. These practices have to be disclosed on the advisory firm’s Form ADV, but no one is looking over their shoulder to make sure these allocations are done correctly. No one audits these accounts to make sure the investment advisor, who is provided full discretion to execute these transactions, is not cherrypicking or skimming off the top.  The only entity that should be aware of this sort of scam is the brokerage firm through which these cherry-picking schemes are executed.

No yield hungry investor wants to miss out on the next Google, the next big thing.  But as this Securities and Exchange Commission civil prosecution shows the only big things in some start-ups may be fraud.  A number of high net worth individuals thought an Orange County, California investment adviser was appealing.  But they were mistaken and taken to the cleaners for $14 million for undisclosed and excessive fees, claims the SEC.

According to an SEC court filing, Stuart Frost and his investment advisory firm, Frost Management Company, raised $63 million from the investors to put into another firm he owned, Frost Data Capital (FDC) that was supposedly performing operational support and other services to help incubate a portfolio of start-ups.  In reality, much of the money was said to have been diverted to fund a lavish lifestyle for him which included a boat, luxury cars and an archery range.

“When Frost needed more cash to fund his lavish lifestyle, he created new portfolio companies and, after investing more fund capital into the new companies, FDC then extracted even more incubator fees,” according to the SEC complaint.  The SEC is alleging Frost and his investment advisory firm violated their fiduciary duties by keeping the super-charged fees hidden from the investors.

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