Articles Tagged with Fraud

On May 24, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a complaint against an options trading instructor and unregistered investment adviser, Gustavo A. Guzman (“Guzman”).  The complaint alleges that Guzman obtained more than $2.1 million from investors, assuring them that their funds would be invested in equity options and real estate.  However, evidence showed that Guzman misappropriated a third of the funds “and lost the remainder through his options trading while misleading existing or prospective investors.”

Guzman was not registered as an investment adviser with the SEC or any state authority.  However, he was tasked with managing investments in two private funds specializing in options trading and one real estate hedge fund.  He also received management fees for managing these funds.  As a result, Guzman met the definition of an investment adviser in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) and was subject to its anti-fraud provisions. Continue reading

On April 10, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced that it brought enforcement actions against 27 firms and individuals.  According to the SEC, these firms and individuals published articles on investment websites about various companies’ stock.  The articles did not disclose to investors, however, that they were not “independent, unbiased analyses,” and they allegedly gave investors the opinion that they were.  The articles also did not have any disclaimers stating that the authors were being paid for promoting various companies’ stock.

The SEC conducted investigations through which it found that public companies engaged promoters or communications firms to create publicity for their stocks.  The promoters and communications firms then employed writers to write articles about the companies.  These articles, however, did not inform the public that the writers were receiving compensation from the public companies.  The SEC claims that, because these articles did not disclose the compensation arrangement, they created the impression that they were impartial when in fact they were “nothing more than paid advertisements.”  Moreover, the SEC found that more than 250 articles contained untrue statements that the writers were not being paid by the companies that their articles were discussing.  As a result, the SEC is alleging that the relevant firms and individuals committed fraud. Continue reading

On February 2, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut against Sentinel Growth Fund Management, LLC (“Sentinel”), an investment adviser, and its founder, Mark J. Varrachi (“Varrachi”).  The complaint alleges that from about December 2015 to November 2016, Varacchi and Sentinel stole $3.95 million or more from investment advisory clients.  The complaint asks that the District Court impose a permanent injunction against Varacchi and Sentinel, order them to disgorge any ill-gotten gains, and order them to pay civil penalties.

Neither Sentinel nor Varrachi was registered as an investment adviser with the SEC or with any state regulatory authority.  However, the SEC charged both of them with violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”).  The SEC found that Sentinel was “in the business of providing investment advice concerning securities for compensation,” which fits the definition of an investment adviser in Section 202(a)(11) of the Advisers Act.  As for Varrachi, the SEC determined that because he owned and managed Sentinel, he too was an investment adviser.  As a result of meeting the definition of an investment adviser, Sentinel and Varrachi were subject to the Advisers Act’s antifraud provisions. Continue reading

On July 29, 2016, the Appellate Court of Illinois entered a decision reversing a circuit court decision that affirmed an administrative order of the Illinois Secretary of State (“Secretary”) finding that Richard Lee Van Dyke, a registered investment adviser with the Illinois Department of Securities (“Department”), had defrauded clients by recommending the sale of indexed annuities in violation of Illinois law.

Section 2.1 of the Illinois Securities Law of 1953 (“Act”) provides that the term “security” is defined to include a “face amount certificate.”  Section 2.14 of the Act further defines a “face amount certificate” to include “any form of annuity contract (other than an annuity contract issued by a life insurance company authorized to transact business in this State)”.  However, Section 12(J) of the Act prohibits fraudulent or manipulative conduct as an investment adviser regardless of whether the investment adviser sells securities.  The Van Dyke case is perhaps most notable for its rejection of the circuit court’s conclusion that Van Dyke’s practices were fraudulent. Continue reading

The Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently filed suit against a North Carolina investment adviser for allegedly defrauding investors in the sale of certain real estate-related investments in unregistered pooled investment vehicles. The adviser, Richard W. Davis Jr., solicited investors primarily from the Charlotte, North Carolina region and was able to raise approximately $11.5 million from 85 investors, the majority of which were individuals with retirement accounts. However, he allegedly failed to disclose to clients that the money in the funds was being steered towards several other entities beneficially owned by himself.

Davis allegedly told investors in one of his funds that the fund’s capital would be invested in short term fully secured loans to real estate developers. He allegedly failed to mention, however, that many of the real estate developers receiving these loans were companies owned and operated by himself, creating an inherent conflict of interest. Furthermore, the companies never repaid the loans in full and Davis allegedly failed to inform his investors of this or reappraise the value of the fund’s investment. Instead, Davis allegedly misrepresented the value of the pooled fund by repeatedly stating that it had not lost any value.

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Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil lawsuit against four individuals who are alleged to have defrauded seniors through so-called “Free Dinner” investment seminars conducted by their investment adviser firm.  The SEC alleged that Joseph Andrew Paul and John D. Ellis, Jr., who managed and jointly owned Paul-Ellis Investment Associates, LLC (PEIA), created materially false and fraudulent marketing material in order to induce Florida residents to attend the “Free Dinner” seminar.  More specifically, the SEC alleged that the marketing materials included performance return statistics that were not consistent with the actual track record of the firm, but rather had been copied and pasted from another advisory firm’s website.

The individuals were also alleged to have recruited James S. Quay of Atlanta, Georgia and Donald H. Ellison of Palm Beach, Florida, who allegedly used the false material to mislead seniors who responded to the “Free Dinner” invitation.  The SEC further alleges that Mr. Quay used an alias, Stephen Jameson in order to conceal his true identity.  Mr. Quay was previously involved and was held liable in an enforcement action brought by the SEC in 2012.  Before that, Quay was an active sales agent in a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme operated by an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the SEC, Quay was also convicted of tax fraud in 2005.

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently brought an administrative proceeding against unregistered fund manager Steven Zoernack and his firm, EquityStar Capital Management, LLC (“EquityStar”), for engaging in allegedly fraudulent conduct in violation of federal securities and investment adviser laws. Mr. Zoernack and EquityStar allegedly concealed Mr. Zoernack’s criminal history, used false identities, and distributed false and misleading marketing materials, among other things, in their bid to lure investors.

As alleged, Mr. Zoernack created EquityStar in May of 2010 to serve as the investment adviser for two private investment funds, Global Partners and Momentum. Between 2011 and 2014 Mr. Zoernack actively sought investors for the two funds, managing to sell approximately $5.6 million of interests in Global Partners and Momentum. As EquityStar’s managing member and sole employee, he handled all activities of the firm and drafted all marketing and offering materials. In the furtherance of these activities, Mr. Zoernack allegedly made many material misrepresentations to investors and prospective investors regarding himself and EquityStar.

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Pursuant to Section 206 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”) and Rule 206(4)-1, it is considered fraud for a registered investment adviser to publish, circulate, or distribute any advertisement which contains any untrue statement of material fact or which is false or misleading. One type of advertising that has been the focus of recent regulatory activity is performance advertising.

Performance advertisements are generally used by investment advisers to portray their past performance results to prospective clients. In order to be avoid misleading the prospective client, all material facts regarding the performance data and how it was calculated must be disclosed. This includes disclosing any material market conditions, the amount of advisory fees or other expenses that were deducted, whether results portrayed include reinvested dividends and other earnings, the investment strategies which were used to obtain the results, and any other material fact which may have impacted the results in any way.
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Earlier this year, the SEC announced one of its focus areas for examinations in 2014 would be cybersecurity. The SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations published a Cybersecurity Initiative Risk Alert in April that provides a sample request for information and documents, which are designed to determine the preparedness of a firm for a cybersecurity threats. Examples of questions asked include:

– Please provide a copy of the Firm’s written business continuity of operations plan that addresses mitigation of the effects of a cybersecurity incident and/or recovery from such an incident if one exists;

– Does the Firm have a Chief Information Security Officer or equivalent position? If so, please identify the person and title. If not, where does principal responsibility for overseeing cybersecurity reside within the firm?;

– Please provide a copy of the Firm’s procedures for verifying the authenticity of email requests seeking to transfer customer funds. If no written procedures exist, please describe the process.

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The SEC has released the results of the 686 2013 enforcement actions it filed in federal court, which resulted in $3.4 billion in sanctions against offenders. Of the $3.4 billion, securities violators were required to disgorge illegal profits of approximately $2.257 billion and pay penalties of approximately $1.167 billion. The chairperson of the SEC, Mary Jo White, stated, “A strong enforcement program helps produce financial markets that operate with integrity and transparency, and reassures investors that they can invest with confidence.”

The 2013 total sanction amount is 10 percent higher than 2012 and 22 percent higher than 2011. In 2013, the SEC pursued many categories of enforcement actions including:

– Broker-dealers (121)
– Delinquent Filings (132)
– Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (5)
– Financial Fraud/Issuer Disclosure (68)
– Insider Trading (44)
– Investment Adviser/Investment Co. (140)
– Market Manipulation (50)
– Securities Offering (103)
– Other (23)

The SEC highlighted certain enforcement programs on which they had focused in 2013 and programs that they will emphasize for the foreseeable future. The SEC is focused on making sure gatekeepers, people that have special duties to ensure that the interests of investors are protected, safeguard and protect investors’ rights.
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