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Chicago-based securities law firm Stoltmann Law Offices continues to represent investors nationwide in claims involving bogus tax-shelter investments like syndicated conservation easements. One of the most troublesome products sold by brokers in recent years have been vehicles that offer investors substantial tax breaks that skirt the US tax code. Although the promise of reducing taxes is always a powerful incentive for high net-worth investors, the vehicles themselves may not be allowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or Tax Courts. The IRS can be ruthless and unforgiving and an investor invested in a “tax shelter” that the IRS determines lacks legitimacy, it is the investor that will owe every nickel of those tax savings back, plus penalties and possible criminal prosecution. It can be a scary and expensive situation.

Syndicated conservation easements offer buyers generous tax deductions for donating property for conservation purposes. Although mostly done by landowners for ecological preservation and restoration, brokers have “bundled” these vehicles to sell them to unsuspecting clients, who buy them thinking they will be gaining outsized tax write-offs. Last year, the IRS announced that it would step up enforcement on these vehicles, which it included in its “Dirty Dozen” list of abusive tax scams to avoid. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice shut down a Georgia-based firm marketing these schemes.

The way a conservation easement scheme works is initially based on a legitimate tax write-off. Say you have a piece of property that has some significant ecological or preservation value. Under IRS rules, you can directly donate the real estate by placing it in a land trust or gift it to a charity, ensuring that it won’t be developed in perpetuity. If it’s a legitimate transaction, you can take a write-off based on the fair value of the land.

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:

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors for fifteen years in arbitration cases against their  brokerage firms and investment advisory firms to recover investment losses.  In times like these, when the stock market heaves violently downward, it is retired investors and the elderly who fall victim to what was years of mismanagement and negligence.  There is an old saying: “Everyone is a genius in a bull market”.  In times like this, we are reminded of another quote from the incomparable Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For the better part of the last decade, investment and financial advisors have been piling client money into variable annuities, structured products, private placements, and stocks. The Bull Market run is over and accounts that became over-exposed to equities through either stocks, mutual funds, annuities, or structured products, are bearing the brunt of this undisciplined approach. Herd mentality has caused more money to flow into the stock market than ever before and a lot of that money belongs to retirees in their IRAs and retirement nest eggs. Failing to diversify and asset allocate a retiree’s account is at a minimum, negligent, and could qualify for a FINRA Arbitration claim.

Stoltmann Law Offices has filed nearly 2,000 arbitration cases for investors over the year, recovering tens of millions of dollars of otherwise lost investment capital.  Our experience in FINRA Arbitration is unmatched. Stoltmann Law Offices has prosecuted cases against banks and brokerage firms involving the failure to diversify and asset allocate, along with securities product cases. Now, the failure to asset allocate and diversify – the cornerstone of investment advice that is so easily overlooked – is costing investors, especially retirees, money they cannot afford to lose. Asset Allocation is the simple concept that investors should never have all of their eggs, or too many eggs, in one basket.  Investments must be split across different asset classes like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, Exchange-Traded Funds, municipal bonds, commodities like gold and silver, and cash. The higher your risk tolerance, the more skewed this balance gets towards the equities and stocks side of the ledger.  The more conservative, the less exposure you should have to stocks and equity-based mutual funds and ETFs.  The reality is, maintaining an appropriate asset allocation takes discipline. As your equity portfolio grows in a bull market, the more concentrated you become in that high risk sector. Money should be continuously taken off the table during a bull market and re-allocated to more conservative, income producing assets like bonds.

Stoltmann Law Offices is investigating on behalf of defrauded investors claims made by the Securities and Exchange Commission that Lester W. “Chad” Burroughs, a financial advisor for Lincoln Planning of Torrington, Connecticut, misappropriated client money for personal use. Burroughs was also a registered investment advisor through Capital Analysts. According to the SEC complaint filed on December 9, 2019 in the Federal District Court, District of Connecticut, Burroughs ran his scheme from November 2012 through at least January 2019.  It was a simple scam, one that is all too common in fact.  Burroughs offered victims an investment called a “Guaranteed Interest Contract”, also known as a “GIC”.  The terms of these “GICs” offered by Burroughs included interest at either 4% or 7% per year for the term of the contract. Once again, and these scams are becoming so much more common, 4% to 7% per year is not an exorbitant return people typically think of when being sold a fraudulent investment.  In fact, 4% per year barely pays more than the average rate of inflation.

In furtherance of his scheme to defraud his clients, Burroughs created fake account statements, and according to the SEC, the reason he sold GICs to subsequent investors was to pay off previous investors – the hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. According to his FINRA BrokerCheck Report, Burroughs is no stranger to customers complaints. When he was hired by Lincoln Planning, Burroughs had fourteen customer complaints disclosed on his CRD Report, which is a statistically enormous number.  Burroughs also paid a fine to the Insurance Commission of the State of Connecticut in 2003 for violations. This history of complaints and compliance issues put Lincoln Planning on notice when they hired Burroughs in 2012 that he was a compliance risk.  Standard operating procedure at a brokerage firm like Lincoln Planning under these circumstances would be to place the advisor on “heightened supervision”.  These heightened supervision programs regularly require increased compliance surveillance like random, unannounced on-sight branch audits and direct communications with clients without the knowledge of the advisor. Certainly, had Lincoln Planning put the necessary resources into supervising Burroughs, he would not have so brazenly created and sold these phony GICs to clients.

This “heightened supervision” requirement for brokers like Burroughs with a history of customer complaints has been part of the regulatory lexicon required by FINRA for almost 20 years.  In NTM 03-49, then NASD (now FINRA) explained to brokerage firms like Lincoln Planning that brokers with a history of customer complaints should be more closely monitored because they are a compliance risk. NASD provided some statistics in this notice which were pretty shocking when one considers the number of complaints Burroughs had on his record prior to even being hired.  According to this notice, only 3.3% of all registered brokers had at least one customer complaint; 0.71% had two; 0.22% had three, and only 0.09% were subject to at least four customer complaints. The Fourteen complaints on  Burroughs record put him in extremely rare company.  Lincoln Planning had an obligation to adequately supervise Burroughs and the firm clearly failed to do that.  As such, Lincoln Planning can be liable for the damages caused by Burroughs to his clients.

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.

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.

FINRA permanently barred former Securities America financial advisor, Bobby Wayne Coburn (“Coburn”) on August 27, 2019 after he failed to appear at the disciplinary hearing. This came after Securities America terminated Mr. Coburn on March 20, 2019 for soliciting multiple clients to invest in an unapproved private securities transaction. He also tried to settle a complaint made by a customer without notifying the firm. According Mr. Coburn’s FINRA BrokerCheck report, the securities were in the form of promissory notes and real estate securities.

On notice of Coburn’s violations, FINRA promptly initiated an investigation into Coburn in July 2019. According to the Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (“AWC”) FINRA entered against Coburn, Securities America learned in January 2019 that Coburn sold unregistered securities to clients in 2010 and 2011. Securities America also discovered the Coburn settled a customer complaint relating to this scheme in 2016 without providing the required notice to his firm and FINRA.  When FINRA requested documents and information from Coburn, he informed FINRA that he was no longer working in the securities industry and refused to produce the documents and information, in violation of FINRA Rule 8210. FINRA also found that Coburn violated Rule 2010, which is a “catch all” rule requiring that brokers and firms conduct business with “high standards of commercial honor” and maintain “just and equitable principles of trade”. FINRA permanently barred Coburn from the securities industries for violating these rules.

Coburn’s career in the financial services industry began in 1986 at Ameritas Investment Corp. During his thirty-three year career, he bounced from firm to firm, and landed at Securities America in January 2009. He worked from the Fort Meade, Florida branch office. Two customers have filed complaints against Coburn, including one complaint related to the real estate investment scheme. According to his BrokerCheck report, Coburn sold the client an investment in a Costa Rica real estate development, which did not make the required payments pursuant to the promissory note. The complaint for $32,000 was settled for $7,000. The entire settlement was paid by Coburn. Another client of Coburn and Securities America formally complained about an unsuitable variable annuity that Coburn sold, and the $5,000 complaint was settled for nearly $55,000, with Coburn contributing $5,000.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has been reporting concerns about the funds offered by GPB Capital for several months now. Our firm now represents multiple clients in FINRA Arbitration proceedings against the brokerage firms responsible for soliciting them to invest in the GPB Funds. Specifically, our clients invested in the GPB Automotive Fund and GPB Holdings Fund II.

On June 21, 2019, it was reported that GPB Capital finally issued valuations on two of its largest funds. Unfortunately for investors, these new valuations are not good. GPB Capital reported a decline of 25.4% for the GPB Holdings Fund II and a whopping 39% decline for the GPB Automotive Fund. It follows that the remainder of the GPB Holdings portfolio of funds will eventually suffer similar write-downs. These valuations are as of year-end 2018, so it is anyone’s guess what these rotting assets are worth as of today. Its truly troubling when private funds like these suffer massive losses when the broader, publicly-traded markets, like the S&P 500, have performed incredibly well for almost 10 years running.

Ongoing accurate valuation is a major problem for these illiquid opaque funds that invest in assets like car dealerships and private garbage collection companies. Stoltmann Law Offices has reviewed numerous GPB Fund materials and the concern is growing that these asset valuations by the company are going to snowball and accelerate into more rapid losses for investors. According to SEC filings approximately 60 brokerage firms sold clients investments in various GPB Capital Funds.  However, the primary sellers of these toxic funds appear to have been Royal Alliance, FSC Securities, SagePoint Financial, and Woodbury Financial Services.

Investors who were solicited to invest in Direct Lending Investments (DLI) in Glendale, California by their financial advisor may have actionable claims to recover their money.  This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged registered investment advisor Direct Lending Investments LLC with a fraud spanning multiple years that caused an $11 million over charge of management and performance fees to its private funds https://www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2019/lr24432.htm.  The company allegedly fraudulently inflated it annual returns by 2 percent to 3 percent per year for multiple years.

According to the SEC:

Brendan Ross, DLI’s owner and then-chief executive officer, arranged with QuarterSpot to falsify borrower payment information for QuarterSpot’s loans and to falsely report to Direct Lending that borrowers made hundreds of monthly payments when, in fact, they had not. The SEC alleges that many of these loans should have been valued at zero, but instead were improperly valued at their full value, because of the false payments Ross helped engineer.

The securities fraud attorneys at Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. are continuing to investigate due diligence and suitability claims against brokerage firms that sold their clients investments in various GPB Capital Holdings offerings.  The most recent news has to do specifically with the Waste Management Fund, which buys and sells private waste haulers and garbage collectors. Not exactly the most glamorous of funds certainly, but new allegations have surfaced that GPB Capital purchased a company called Five Star Carting in March 2017, which has been embroiled in litigation amid allegations of a poor safety record. To make matters worse for GPB Waste Management, according to an InvestmentNews report,  GPB’s director of waste strategy – that is seriously the reported title – is Rod Proto, formally of Waste Management. He was fired from his position as President and COO of Waste Management 1999 and then charged with insider trading in 2003 by the SEC for which he paid a $3.7 million fine and stipulated to a ban from serving as an officer or director of a publicly traded company for five years.  It is unknown at this time if the FBI search warrant or other searches conducted by the New York City Business Integrity Commission – which happens to regulate waste haulers in New York City – has anything to do specifically with the GPB Waste Management Fund. In any event, the continued bad press and regulatory pressure is not good for GPB Fund investors.

Almost weekly more negative news comes out about GPB Capital Holdings. We have written considerably about many of these issues.  Brokers sell private placements like GPB Waste Management Fund, or the more popular GPB Automotive Fund for one reason – commissions. There is no other logical reason and exposure to a particular sector is not an excuse. If an investor needs exposure to the automobile sector, there are hundreds of publicly traded, low-commission options, including common stocks of car companies  or the companies from the automotive supply chain. If an investor is seeking a high-income investment, there are literally thousands of publicly-traded corporate or municipal bond options available at a fraction of the cost of a private placement like the GPB Funds. These private placements offer investors a toxic cocktail of 1) illiquidity, meaning once your money goes in it does not come back out until GPB says it does, 2) speculative risk, meaning the highest risk investment product available, and 3) a poor risk/return profile, meaning the risk you are taking is not being compensated by some potential of a high return. GPB Funds  were simply bad deals for investors. The only people that make out in situations like this are the brokerage firms like NewBridge Securities, FSC Securities, Cetera Advisors, Royal Alliance, and many others, who sold an estimated $1.5 billion of these funds to their clients.  At a 10% commission rate, these brokerage firms generated approximately $150 million in revenue just from selling these speculative and opaque funds.

If you were sold investments in any of the GBP Capital offerings by your financial advisor and wish to know your legal options, please call 312-332-4200 for a no obligation free consultation with an attorney. Stoltmann Law Offices is a Chicago-based  contingency fee firm which means we do not get paid until you do.

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