Articles Tagged with Fraud

In a recently-announced administrative proceeding, the SEC has entered a permanent securities industry bar against Joseph B. Bronson, effectively preventing Bronson from ever again associating with any investment adviser, broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer/advisor. The SEC Order barring Bronson—consented to by Bronson—comes on the heels of an August final judgment against Bronson and his former RIA, Strong Investment Management, obtained by the SEC in a civil case filed in a California federal district court. This final judgment against Bronson and his RIA was especially harsh as it found him and the firm jointly and severally liable for nearly $1 million in disgorgement plus $100,000 in prejudgment interest. Bronson was also individually ordered by the court to pay a $184,000 civil penalty.

The Bronson case is instructive as it highlights an especially egregious case of fraudulent conduct and fiduciary disregard in the form of a “cherry-picking” scheme that—while invisible to Bronson’s clients—did not go unnoticed by the regulators. In a nutshell, over a four-year period, Bronson utilized his firm’s omnibus trading account at two different broker/dealers to effect a bald-faced cherry-picking scheme, whereby he entered block trades via the omnibus account, waited to see the trades’ intra-day performance, and then disproportionately allocated the winning trades to his own personal accounts and the losers to client accounts. Continue reading

The SEC has filed fraud charges against a large ($85 billion AUM) registered investment adviser for its failure to disclose material conflicts of interest in connection with a “revenue sharing” arrangement with its clearing broker. The SEC’s Complaint against the adviser, Boston-based Commonwealth Equity Services, LLC, d/b/a Commonwealth Financial Network (“Commonwealth”), was filed in Massachusetts federal district court, and alleges that Commonwealth received over $100 million in revenue sharing from the clearing broker while failing to properly apprise its advisory clients of the full nature of the revenue sharing arrangement and the inherent conflicts of interest implicated by it. The Commonwealth case is just the latest in a string of actions by the SEC involving mutual fund share class selection by advisers and comes on the heels of the recent DC Circuit decision in the Robare case, which has likely emboldened the SEC somewhat.

The Commonwealth case involves a revenue sharing arrangement between Commonwealth and National Financial Services, LLC (“NFS”), an affiliate of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments. Pursuant to that arrangement, NFS paid Commonwealth a percentage of the money paid to NFS by mutual fund companies in return for the right to sell their mutual funds through NFS. The money paid to Commonwealth by NFS under this arrangement, in turn, was directly related to the amount of Commonwealth client assets invested in certain share classes of specific funds offered on NFS’ platform. In other words, the more client assets placed by Commonwealth into particular funds and classes of those funds, the more revenue shared with Commonwealth. Continue reading

FINRA has alerted its Member Firms to be on the watch for a fraudulent phishing email scheme targeted at compliance personnel. A phishing scheme typically uses email or some other type of electronic message to trick the recipient into clicking a malicious link or infected file attachment by mimicking a message from a trustworthy party. This particular scheme employs an email purportedly originating from an Anti-Money Laundering compliance officer at an otherwise apparently legitimate Indiana-based credit union. The email—which was received recently by a number of FINRA Member Firms—specifically targets compliance personnel by appearing to be a communication regarding an attempted transfer of money by a client of the recipient’s firm to the credit union which has been placed on hold due to concerns about potential money laundering. The scam is designed to get the recipient to open an attachment, which, according to FINRA “likely contains a malicious virus or malware designed to obtain unauthorized access to the recipient’s computer network.”

FINRA noted the following additional aspects of the fraudulent email that recipients should be alert for:

  • An otherwise legitimate reference to a provision of the USA Patriot Act allowing financial institutions to share information with each other.
  • An actual email address that appears to be from Europe, rather than the U.S.-based credit union.
  • Numerous instances of poor grammar and sentence structure.

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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 May 4, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) reached a settlement with Verto Capital Management, LLC (“Verto”), a New Jersey-based life settlement firm, and its CEO, William Schantz III (“Schantz”).  Verto and Schantz consented to pay the SEC about $4 million, which includes both disgorgement and a penalty, to settle claims that they used funds from new investors to pay older investors in a Ponzi-type manner.  The SEC also alleged that Verto and Schantz diverted investor funds for Schantz’s personal use.

The settlement resulted from a complaint filed by the SEC in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that between November 2013 and November 2015 Verto and Schantz issued about $12.5 million worth of nine-month 7% promissory notes to investors.  Verto and Schantz claimed that the funds from these promissory notes would be used to purchase “life settlements,” which are life insurance policies that have been sold by their original owners to third-party buyers.  The SEC’s complaint alleges that Verto and Schantz made a variety of misrepresentations in the sale of these promissory notes. 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 December 13, 2016, the Arizona Court of Appeals (“Court of Appeals”) affirmed an Arizona Superior Court’s decision finding that Patrick Shudak, an investment adviser, violated the Arizona Securities Act by acting as an unregistered securities salesperson or dealer in connection with the sale of interests in a real estate venture.

From January 2008 through July 2009, Shudak sold membership units in a company known as Parker Skylar & Associates, LLC (PSA).  Neither Shudak nor PSA was registered as a securities salesperson or dealer under the Arizona Securities Act.  Shudak stated in PSA’s promotional materials that the money invested in PSA would “be used to purchase and develop real property.”  In reality, however, Shudak placed the money that investors put into PSA into his personal account, the personal accounts of others such as his girlfriend, and business accounts of other business that Shudak owned or had some affiliation with.

In December 2009, investors started to grow worried when Shudak stopped returning phone calls and replying to the investors’ demands for information.  As a result, Shudak was obligated to stop serving as PSA manager and to give up his PSA membership.  He subsequently filed for bankruptcy in April 2010.

On December 1, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced that it had filed a complaint for injunctive and other relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida against Onix Capital LLC (“Onix Capital”), an asset management company, and its owner, a Chilean national by the name of Alberto Chang-Rajii (“Chang”).  The complaint alleges that Onix Capital and Chang “violated the federal securities laws by fraudulently raising approximately $7.4 million from investors based on material misrepresentations regarding the investments offered, the use of the funds raised, and the background and financial success of Chang himself.”

Onix Capital was not an SEC-registered adviser, nor was Chang registered as an investment adviser or broker-dealer.  However, the SEC alleged that Onix Capital and Chang violated the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”).  Specifically, the SEC alleged that Chang, “for compensation, engaged in the business of advising… investors… as to the value of securities or as to the advisability of investing in, purchasing, or selling securities,” and therefore met the definition of an “investment adviser” subject to the anti-fraud provisions of the Advisers Act. 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