Articles Tagged with FINRA Enforcement

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices is representing investors who’ve suffered losses from financial advisors who’ve swindled investors through unauthorized transactions. Can financial advisers trade your portfolio or buy investments without your permission? Only if you give them “discretionary” authority and definitely not if they’ve failed to obtain your written okay.

Without a doubt, brokers can’t do anything with your assets if they forge your signatures to make a transaction. Joffre Salazar, a former broker with LPL Financial, was terminated by the brokerage firm after he “forged two customers’ signatures and initials on documents connected to the purchase of fixed annuities, which Salazar then also submitted without the customers’ authorization,” according to FinancialAdvisorIQ.com.

Salazar, who first registered with Finra, the federal securities regulator, in 1991, registered with LPL in 2016, according to Finra. In April 2019, LPL filed a termination notice for Salazar, stating that he resigned voluntarily, but two months later amended the form to disclose that it started a review of Salazar’s “involvement in processing [an] annuity application without customer authorization,” Finra stated.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from brokers whose firms promote high risk alternative investments and private placements. Did you know that brokerage firms can be held accountable when their brokers sell high-risk, illiquid investments that are unsuitable for their clients? Such was the case with Sanctuary Securities, which was forced to pay more than $530,000 in fines and restitution to investors for  “failures to supervise certain product sales,” according to Advisorhub.com.

Sanctuary was fined $160,000 and ordered to pay restitution of $370,161.39 plus interest “for the various supervisory failures dating as far back as 2014 that were uncovered over multiple FINRA examinations, according to a letter of acceptance, waiver and consent finalized on July 1.” Formerly David Noyes and Company, Indianapolis-based Sanctuary has about 190 registered brokers and 35 offices. The company said that no current employees were involved in this action. The FINRA enforcement action involved the firm’s sales of money-losing, risky products called “leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs).” These investments multiply gains and losses based on market movements of popular securities indexes. These “non-traditional” or “alternative” investments can lose money for investors if brokers or investors guess wrong on market movements.

According to FINRA, from January 2014 through December 2018, “Sanctuary did not sufficiently address the unique features and risks related to solicited sales of inverse and leveraged ETFs (collectively, non-traditional ETFs) as required by suitability obligations under FINRA Rule 2111. Around 30 brokers recommended customers purchase about $5 million worth of non-traditional ETFs, resulting in significant net losses for those who held their positions for extended periods of time. The firm, meanwhile, generated roughly $60,000 in commissions over the course of about 600 purchases in 150 customer accounts,” FINRA stated.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C., a boutique Chicago-based law firm that offers representation nationwide to investors, has been fighting brokerage firms and investment firms for decades over variable annuities and insurance products.  Variable annuities, equity-indexed annuities, whole life insurance, variable life insurance, whatever they are called, and the names can get really complicated, these insurance products are designed to do two things.  First, they are designed to move money from your pocket to the insurance company.  Second, they are designed to pay handsome commissions to the salesmen who solicit clients to invest or purchase these annuity and insurance products.

Recently, FINRA, which is the regulatory body responsible for policing the brokerage/investment markets, fined O.N. Equity Sales Company, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, for failing to supervise and surveil the sale and switching of annuities and insurance policies by their clients.  FINRA penalized ON Equity $275,000 and ordered the firm to pay restitution to aggrieved investors in the amount of $1,001,146.86.  FINRA’s investigation found that O.N. Equity (ONESCO) failed to establish, maintain, and enforce a supervisory system reasonably designed to supervise the sale of variable annuities. Because of ONESCO’s failures, the firm failed to detect and deter sales practice abuses by Richard Wesselt. In a parallel action, Wesselt consented to a permanent bar from the securities industry as a result of his misconduct. According to the FINRA action, he violated FINRA Rule 2111 (suitability), in connection with the recommendation to 78 investors to purchase variable annuities, that were inconsistent with the customers’ investment profiles, risk tolerance, liquidity needs, and time horizon.  Using what he called his “Infinite Banking” strategy, he pursued investors to liquidate their retirement accounts, including 401(k)s or IRAs, and use the  proceeds to buy variable annuities, and then liquidate the variable annuities to build cash value in whole life insurance policies. Wesselt was ONESCO’s highest producer in 2016 – big surprise given his proclivity to sell high commission products like variable annuities and life insurance policies.

If a financial advisor ever recommends the liquidation of mutual funds or other securities in an IRA or 401(k) account in order to buy a variable annuity, stop what you are doing and start looking for a new financial advisor.  The main attraction to variable annuities has always been that the money grows tax-deferred like an IRA.  By investing IRA funds in a variable annuity, that benefit is irrelevant. Instead, what you are doing is agreeing to pay your broker a huge 5%+ up front commission and the insurance company 3%-4% of your money per year in various fees and charges.  Variable annuities also charge huge surrender fees for money withdrawn in the first several years, although some offer a 10% withdrawal without penalty. Lastly, the mutual fund options for variable annuity sub-accounts are greatly reduced versus what an investor can invest in through a traditional IRA.  Variable annuities are rarely suitable for any investor. Unless you check the following boxes, variable annuities are not for you: 1) you maximize your tax-deferred retirement savings every year, i.e., you are contributing the max amount to your 401Ks and IRAs; 2) You actually need life insurance; and 3) you are young enough that you don’t need the money invested in the annuity for at least ten years.  Few people check these boxes, and yet according to reports, there is almost $2 trillion dollars locked away in these products, with more than $35 billion in sales in 2020.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses in the LJM Preservation and Growth Fund. When broker-dealers sell you investments, they are responsible for fully informing you of the risks at the point of sale. When they fail to give you an honest, transparent disclosure on what they are selling – and the investments tank — you may have an arbitration case that you can pursue to get your money back.

Cambridge Investment Research, Merrill Lynch, and other brokerage firms sold a mutual fund called the LJM Preservation and Growth fund to their customers. The fund’s “value plummeted 80% over two days in early February 2018, after brokers in the previous two years sold $18 million of its shares to more than 550 customers, prompted by sales calls in May 2016 from an LJM wholesaler,” the securities regulator FINRA stated. “The fund was liquidated and dissolved in March 2018.”

What made the fund so volatile that led to its demise? It employed a risky strategy called “uncovered options,” but failed to tell investors that it was a highly complex vehicle prone to catastrophic losses.

Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. has represented hundreds of investors in arbitration actions against brokerage firms for losses in connection with non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Non-Traded REITs are the darlings of brokers and their firms because of the huge commissions and “hands-free” management approach they foster. Brokers sell non-traded REITs under the guise of “high income” and “non-stock market risk”, when the money investors receive from REIT distributions is mostly made up of their own money, and are actually as speculative to invest in as the stock of any company.

According to FINRA, the regulatory agency responsible for policing brokers and their firms, Mike Patatian sold made 89 unsuitable recommendations to 59 clients who invested more than $7.8 million in non-traded REITS. FINRA alleges that Patatian did not understand the REITs he sold, including basis features and risks, and therefore lacked a reasonable basis to make the recommendations. Patatian is also alleged to have recommended that clients liquidate annuities, incur surrender charges, and then roll the proceeds into non-traded REITs. He is also accused of inflating client net worth on forms in order to circumvent REIT limitations. Patatian denies FINRA’s allegations, which can be found here.

Stoltmann Law has blogged extensively on issues related to non-traded REITs. Between the speculative risk, high commissions, lack of liquidity, and complicated structure, there are numerous better options for an investor who wants exposure to the real estate sector. There are hundreds of fully liquid REITs traded on the New York Stock Exchange every day for investors that want to invest in REITs. There is no reason to invest in a non-traded REIT other than the sales pitch by the broker selling them.

Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles a $1.2 million FINRA arbitration claim filed by Stoltmann Law Offices against Merrill Lynch.  The article details the abuses engaged in by the firm in selling the Strategic Return Notes to retail investors and our efforts to recover these losses through claims for fraud, unsuitable investment recommendations and lying about the risks associated with these investments (the entire article can be viewed at the following link http://www.wsj.com/articles/sec-readies-case-against-merrill-over-notes-that-lost-95-1466544740).  The case centers around secretly recorded phone conversations, secured by Stoltmann Law Offices, of 13 conversations between the Merrill Lynch financial advisors and senior Merrill Lynch executives, including Brian Partridge, head of U.S. product sales for Merrill’s wealth-management division at the time.  As alleged in our FIRNA Statement of Claim, the Merrill Lynch advisers were told on the calls not to suggest to their clients the product was flawed. “What you’d love to do is avoid customer complaint,” Mark Ryan, a manager at the firm, told the brokers. “We can’t just tell everyone, ‘Hey this is a defective product.’”

Due to the allegations we made in the Statement of Claim and in working with two major regulators, we were able to get Merrill Lynch fined for these sales practices in the amount of $15 million.  Both the Securities and Exchange and FINRA Enforcement fined Merrill Lynch for these abusive practices associated with the structured products (please see here for the SEC Enforcement action https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-129.html and here for the FIRNA Enforcement action https://www.finra.org/newsroom/2016/finra-fines-merrill-lynch-5-million-related-return-notes-sales).

If you’d like to learn how to sue Merrill Lynch for abusive structured product sales, please call our investment fraud firm in Chicago, Illinois.

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