Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Feds Take Aim at Investment Advisers

The SEC and DOJ brought a slew of cases against IAR's and RIA's in the first half of 2015. At least six cases were filed just last month alone. Here is a brief summary of a sampling of those cases.

On January 21, 2015, the SEC filed fraud charges and an asset freeze against a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based investment advisory firm, its manager, and three related funds in a scheme that raised more than $17 million. The SEC’s complaint filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida charged Elm Tree Investment Advisors LLC, its founder and manager, Frederic Elm, and Elm Tree Investment Fund LP, Elm Tree “e”Conomy Fund LP, and Elm Tree Motion Opportunity LP. According to the complaint, Elm, formerly known as Frederic Elmaleh, his unregistered investment advisory firm, and the three funds misled investors and used most of the money raised to make Ponzi-like payments to the investors. The complaint alleges that Elm used the funds to buy a $1.75 million home, luxury automobiles, and jewelry, and to cover daily living expenses.

On March 6, 2015, an investment adviser was hit with felony charges alleging that he defrauded clients of more than $1 million while running his own investment firm in Chicago. Philip E. Moriarty II is accused of six counts of wire fraud related to allegations that he defrauded investors of at least $1.1 million while he was the CEO of First Street Capital Partners in Chicago from 2008 to 2010. He’s accused of convincing four investors that they were investing in his businesses through the use of fraudulent documentation, and then spending the funds on personal expenses, including payments to a golf, hunting and fishing club, and $23,000 to a boarding school in New Hampshire.

Late that month, the SEC filed fraud charges against an investment adviser and her New York-based firms accusing them of hiding the poor performance of loan assets in three collateralized loan obligation (CLO) funds they managed. The SEC’s Enforcement Division alleged that Lynn Tilton and her Patriarch Partners firms breached their fiduciary duties and defrauded clients by failing to value assets using the methodology described to investors in offering documents for the CLO funds. Tilton and her firms allegedly have avoided significantly reduced management fees because the valuation methodology described in fund documents would have given investors greater fund management control and earlier principal repayments if collateral loans weren’t performing to a particular standard.

In April, 2015, a former JPMorgan Chase investment adviser was arrested on charges he stole $20 million from customers and spent the funds on unprofitable trading and other personal expenses. Michael Oppenheim allegedly took money from at least seven bank clients in a fraud scheme he operated from March 2011 to March 2015. Oppenheim worked as a JPMorgan investment adviser. He advised approximately 500 clients who collectively kept roughly $89 million in assets under his management, according to a criminal complaint filed by Manhattan federal prosecutors.

Later in April, a former Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney investment adviser already serving a federal prison term for investment fraud pleaded guilty to additional fraud charges in connection with a nearly two-decade-long scheme to defraud clients of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jane E. O’Brien of Needham, MA, pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud, and two counts of investment adviser fraud. As alleged in the indictment, between 1995 and 2013, O’Brien defrauded several clients for whom she provided investment advisory services. As part of the scheme, O’Brien misappropriated funds entrusted to her through a variety of means, including persuading clients to withdraw money from their bank and brokerage accounts to invest. After gaining control of her clients’ money, however, O’Brien made no such investments. Instead, she used the misappropriated client funds for a variety of improper purposes, including paying personal expenses, paying purported investment returns, or repaying personal loans to other clients. Finally, in order to perpetuate her fraud and conceal it from her clients, O’Brien made false statements and misrepresentations to clients, including by making lulling payments to clients and otherwise providing them with false assurances of their financial security.

On May 15, 2015, Bryan Binkholder of St. Louis was sentenced to 108 months in prison on multiple fraud charges involving his financial planning and investment strategy businesses. In addition to the prison sentence, he was also ordered to pay $3,655,980 in restitution to the victims. According to court documents, Binkholder labeled himself “The Financial Coach” and provided investment and financial planning advice to the public through his affiliated websites and an investment related talk-radio show that aired on local radio stations. In 2008, he developed a real estate investment he termed “hard money lending.” Using his platform as an investment advisor and financial talk show host, Binkholder solicited his clients and others to invest in the hard money lending program. As part of his sales pitch he represented that he had relationships with developers who were not able to secure financing from traditional banks. As part of the hard money lending program, Binkholder told investors that they would invest money with him, and he would act as a bank and provide short term loans to these developers at a high rate of interest which would be shared with the investor. Instead of exclusively making hard money loans as promised, he took in millions of dollars of investor money, made only a small number of hard money loans and caused investors to lose more than $3,000,000.

On May 21, 2015, The Securities and Exchange Commission filed fraud charges against an Atlanta-based investment advisory firm and two executives accused of selling unsuitable investments to pension funds for the city’s police and firefighters and other employees. The SEC’s Enforcement Division alleged that Gray Financial Group, its founder and president Laurence O. Gray, and its co-CEO Robert C. Hubbard IV breached their fiduciary duty by steering these public pension fund clients to invest in an alternative investment fund offered by the firm despite knowing the investments did not comply with state law. Georgia law allows most public pension funds in the state to purchase alternative investment funds, but the investments are subject to certain restrictions that Gray Financial Group’s fund allegedly failed to meet. The SEC alleged that Gray Financial Group collected more than $1.7 million in fees from the pension fund clients as a result of the improper investments.

On June 3, 2015, the SEC filed two cases against purported investment advisers who falsified their credentials. In one case, the SEC charged that Todd M. Schoenberger of Delaware solicited at least a dozen people to invest in promissory notes issued by LandColt Capital, an unregistered advisory firm. According to the SEC, he said the notes would be repaid from management fees. Just a few days later, a Chicago investment adviser was arrested on federal charges that he defrauded his clients of at least $1 million, some of which he allegedly gambled away at local casinos. Alan Gold was charged in a criminal complaint that was unsealed following his arrest.

On June 11, 2015, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin announced the unsealing of a 21-count indictment charging Pamela Hass with wire fraud and money laundering. The indictment also contains a forfeiture allegation seeking $460,831.27 in criminal proceeds. The indictment alleges that Hass engaged in a wire fraud scheme to defraud investors by promising returns from an investment in internet pop-up ads. According to the indictment, Hass falsely told investors they would obtain a return of anywhere from five to 20 times their original investment, and that if the investment failed, she would personally guarantee the return of the original investment plus 7 percent interest.

Also last month, The Securities and Exchange Commission announced fraud charges against a Washington D.C.-based investment advisory firm’s former president accused of stealing client funds. The firm and its chief compliance officer separately agreed to settle charges that they were responsible for compliance failures and other violations. SFX Financial Advisory Management Enterprises is wholly-owned by Live Nation Entertainment and specializes in providing advisory and financial management services to current and former professional athletes. The SEC alleged that SFX’s former president Brian J. Ourand misused his discretionary authority and control over the accounts of several clients to steal approximately $670,000 over a five-year period by writing checks to himself and initiating wires from client accounts for his own benefit.

Just a day later, Kenneth Graves, a former investment adviser representative in Corpus Christi whose license to sell securities was revoked last year by the Texas Securities Commissioner, was indicted on fraud charges related to the sale of investment contracts and excessive fees for his firm’s services. The indictment alleges that Graves defrauded six clients of his firm, Warren Financial Services LLC, through the sale of $420,720 in investment contracts. The indictment alleges that in a separate fraud in 2013 and 2014, Graves misapplied $128,918 in fees he had collected from clients of Warren Financial.

Finally, on June 17, 2015, the SEC announced fraud charges against a Massachusetts-based investment advisory firm and its owner for funneling more than $17 million in client assets into four financially troubled Canadian penny stock companies in which the owner had an undisclosed financial interest. The SEC alleged that clients at Interinvest Corporation may have lost as much as $12 million of their $17 million investment based on the recent trading history of shares in the penny stock companies, some of which were purportedly in the business of exploring for gold or other minerals. Interinvest’s owner and president Hans Black served on the board of directors of these companies, which have collectively paid an entity he controls approximately $1.7 million. Black’s involvement with these companies and his receipt of payments from them created a conflict of interest that he and Interinvest failed to disclose to their advisory clients.

On a final note--Investors and accountants should take the time to read Brian Carroll's article regarding investment advisory fraud in the Journal of Accounting.

In addition to founding the Investment Adviser Rep Syndicate, David Cosgrove, a former regulator and prosecutor, is the founding Member and Manager of Cosgrove Law Group, LLC. The law firm represents both investors and investment advisers across the nation. In doing so, the firm's members have a unique strategic advantage and insight when it comes to litigation or conflict resolution in the financial services and investment arena. 

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