Articles Tagged with FINRA

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from brokers and advisers in FINRA, AAA, and JAMS arbitrations for over fifteen years. One of the biggest problems with resolving investor or consumer complaints is that people are forced to go through a mandatory arbitration process. While this system avoids having to go to court – and can be less expensive – it’s often patently unfair because of lack of diversity among arbitrators.

Another overwhelming issue is that mandatory arbitration, which is in nearly every brokerage and consumer dispute resolution agreement, takes away your right to sue a firm that’s wronged you. That often limits your ability to be made whole and collect damages. And who sits on arbitration panels may restrict your legal options even more.

A recent study by the American Association for Justice found three major, disturbing flaws in the private arbitration system:

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.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve sold their clients variable annuities. One thing we see constantly in our practice is older investors who’ve been sold variable annuities that are onerously expensive and nearly always fail to live up to expectations. Variable annuities are investment products that offer restrictive access to mutual funds with an insurance wrapper. They are expensive to buy and carry ongoing fees and expenses that eat away at investor return. They also offer a tax incentive that brokers love to use as a sales point that in reality provides no benefit to most investors.

The main reason why variable annuities are usually poor investments is that they charge several layers of fees to investors. Everyone gets a cut from the insurance company to mutual fund managers. It’s very difficult for anyone outside of the middlemen to make money. Brokers and their advisory firms, however, sell them aggressively because the insurance companies that pilfer annuities pay out huge commissions to the salesmen who sell them.

Broker-advisors are perennially being cited for variable annuity marketing abuses. Transamerica Financial Advisors was recently fined $8.8 million by FINRA for “failing to supervise its registered representatives’ (brokers) recommendations for three different products,” which included annuities. The firm was ordered to pay more than $4 million in restitution.  The FINRA settlement cited Transamerica’s failure to monitor transactions that involved clients switching from other investments to annuities, which generated millions in commissions and fees for the firms. This is an egregious practice in the brokerage industry that mostly focuses on older and retired investors.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors who’ve obtained loans from their clients. When a broker asks a client for a loan, it almost always leads to trouble for the customer. Under securities laws, they are not permitted to do this, except under special conditions. The reasons are quite clear: They are supposed to propose suitable investments and prudently manage their money. Obtaining a direct loan is a conflict of interest that usually leads to chicanery.

Philip Anthony Simone, a former broker with AXA Advisors who worked with the firm from 2017-2019, borrowed a total of $133,000 from two clients. That violated three rules of FINRA, the main U.S. securities regulator, that prohibits brokers from obtaining loans from customers, who were elderly.

The AXA broker then “created and submitted falsified firm account statements and supporting documents to a third-party bank in support of a mortgage application,” FINRA stated. Simone was fined $12,500 and suspended from the securities industry for 11 months, beginning in November, 2020.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices, P.C. represents GPB investors in claims against brokerage firms and financial advisors who solicited investments in the GPB Capital Funds.  GPB was named in a criminal indictment by the U.S. Department of Justice on February 4. GPB’s top executives were charged with fraud and running a Ponzi scheme. The government charged three GPB executives — David Gentile, Jeffrey Schneider and Jeffrey Lash — with securities fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy.

According to Investment News, “GPB raised $1.8 billion from investors starting in 2013 through sales of private partnerships, but it has not paid investors steady returns, called distributions, since 2018. More than 60 broker-dealers partnered with GPB to sell the private placements and charged customers charged clients commissions of up to 8%.” Stoltmann Law Offices pursues those brokerage firms for their investor-clients to recover GPB losses.

Gentile, the owner and CEO of GPB Capital, and Schneider, owner of GPB Capital’s agent Ascendant Capital, are charged with lying to investors about the source of money used to make 8% annualized investor payments, according to the SEC’s complaint. Using the marketing broker-dealer Ascendant Alternative Strategies, GPB told investors that the unusually high payments were paid exclusively with monies generated by GPB Capital’s portfolio companies, the SEC alleged. At first glance, the distributions were highly appealing to investors, since ultra-safe U.S. Treasury Notes are yielding around 1%.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors in cases against securities brokers and has been investigating claims against LPL and filing arbitration complaints for investors. Can securities brokers who’ve been fleecing investors somehow keep working in the industry? If a firm’s records systems are poorly managed, sadly, the answer is yes. Sometimes they slip through the cracks and continue to steal customers’ funds and place them in bad or fraudulent investments that turn out to be Ponzi schemes.

That was the case with former LPL broker James T. Booth, who worked for the firm from 2018 through 2019. Booth pled guilty to one count of securities fraud in October, 2019, and was barred from the industry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). LPL was also cited for “supervisory deficiencies” by FINRA, the industry regulator, in connection with Booth stealing “at least $1 million of LPL customers’ money as part of a multi-year Ponzi scheme,” according to thediwire.com. The regulator fined LPL $6.5 million.

There was a bigger problem at LPL, though: FINRA claims that LPL’s recordkeeping system failed to report millions of customer communications. The firm’s failure “affected at least 87 million records and led to the permanent deletion of more than 1.5 million customer communications maintained by a third-party data vendor. These included mutual fund switch letters, 36-month letters, and wire transfer confirmations that were required to be preserved for at least three years.”

Chicago-Based Stoltmann Law Offices has been representing California investors before FINRA arbitration panels for many years. We are looking into allegations made by an investor that allege that Ryan Raskin, who was registered with Merrill Lynch until he was discharged for cause in March 2020, executed unauthorized trades for a client. Merrill Lynch denied that complaint outright, which is a common practice used by brokerage firms when clients come to them with a complaint without being armed with an experienced FINRA investor-rights lawyer.

According to a story published by AdvisorHub.com, Raskin was employed with Merrill Lynch since 2016. On January 13, 2021, Mr. Raskin was barred by FINRA for failing to respond to requests for information. FINRA has the authority, under FINRA Rule 8210, to seek information and documents from any licensed, registered representative, even after the are terminated or are not working in the securities industry. As part of their enforcement mandate to enforce securities law and regulations, FINRA is given pretty broad discretion to seek out information related to its investigations, and in the event a broker like Raskin refuses to cooperate or ignores a valid request for information from FINRA, the penalty is a lifetime ban from the securities industry.  Sometimes brokers do this because they are out of the business and don’t really care if they lose their license to provide investment advice. Sometimes brokers ignore FINRA because they have something serious to hide.

Mr. Raskin was discharged from Merrill Lynch in March 2020 for “conduct involving business practices inconsistent with Firm standards, including inappropriate investment recommendation.” The impetus for FINRAs Rule 8210 request was this discharge by Merrill Lynch, which was reported to FINRA on Form U-5. Although the FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC), which was signed by Mr. Raskin, does not state any specific allegations with respect to misconduct. Still, Merrill Lynch discharged Mr. Raskin for “inappropriate investment recommendations” and one customer did make a complaint against him for unauthorized trading.

Chicago-based Stoltmann Law Offices has represented investors who’ve suffered losses from dealing with broker-advisors affiliated with the Cetera financial group.  The securities regulator FINRA recently fined three Cetera Financial Group broker-dealers $1 million, claiming that Cetera’s “supervisory systems and procedures were deficient when handling securities transactions.”

Like many advisory firms, Cetera employs representatives who are “dually registered,” meaning they are broker-dealers and registered investment advisers. In the Cetera case, their representatives managed more than $80 billion in assets across 47,000 accounts. According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) exams conducted in 2013, 2015 and 2017, Cetera was “aware of the supervisory deficiencies.”

Without admitting or denying the allegations, Cetera recently signed a FINRA letter of Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent and agreed to FINRA’s sanctions, which included a censure and an agreement that they would review and revise, as necessary, systems, policies and procedures related to the supervision of dually-registered reps’ securities transactions, according to ThinkAdvisor.com.

CNBC
FOX Business
The Wall Street Journal
Bloomberg
CBS
FOX News Channel
USA Today
abc NEWS
DATELINE
npr
Contact Information