SEC News

Merrill Lynch Charged With Gatekeeping Failures in the Unregistered Sales of Securities

On March 8, 2018, the SEC announced that it had settled charges against Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. for its failure to perform required gatekeeping functions in the unregistered sales of securities on behalf of a China-based issuer and its affiliates.

The SEC’s order found that Merrill Lynch sold almost three million shares of Longtop Financial Technological Limited’s securities into the market despite red flags indicating that the sales could be part of an unlawful unregistered distribution.  Ultimately, the distribution generated almost $38 million in proceeds for the overseas issuer and its affiliates.

It was determined that Merrill Lynch violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933.  In settlement, without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, the firm agreed to be censured and consented to the order requiring it to cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of the registration provisions of the Securities Act.  The order also requires Merrill Lynch to pay a penalty of $1.25 million and more than $154,000 in disgorgement and prejudgment interest from commissions and fees earned on the improper sales.  The SEC has revoked the registration of Longtop’s securities.

SEC Halts Ongoing Fraud by Purported Hedge Fund Manager

On February 2, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged a purported hedge fund manager in New York City with a brazen offering and investment adviser fraud thereby putting an end to an ongoing scheme.

The SEC alleged that, since at least 2014, Nicholas Joseph Genovese and his hedge fund Willow Creek Investments LP raised more than $5.3 million from at least six investors by affirmatively misrepresenting his prior money-management, securities industry experience, and size of operations. In particular, the SEC charged that Genovese: falsely stated that he managed $4 billion of the Genovese Drug Store family’s assets; falsely stated that his hedge fund’s investment adviser had $30-39 billion of assets under management, when, in reality, it appears to have had less than $10 million in assets under management; falsely stated that his advisory firm had between 42 and 60 employees, when, in reality, it had fewer than 10 employees; and falsely stated that his hedge fund had investment gains of 30-40 percent per year, when, in reality, it sustained losses. In addition, in furtherance of his scheme, Genovese lied about his education and prior work experience, and concealed his criminal past from investors.

The SEC also alleged that Genovese and his advisory firm Willow Creek Advisors LLC misappropriated investor funds to fund securities trading in Genovese’s personal brokerage account, which sustained over $8 million of trading losses between 2015 and 2017, and Genovese’s lifestyle by paying approximately $263,000 for, among other things, ATM cash withdrawals, food, hotel and transportation charges, including being chauffeured in a Bentley.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Genovese’s fraud appears to be ongoing as evidenced by recent money coming into his account as well as a recent refusal of an investor’s redemption request.

The SEC’s complaint charged Genovese and his hedge fund with violating Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder, and charges Genovese and his advisory firm with violations of Sections 206(1), 206(2) and 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rule 206(4)-8 thereunder. The SEC is seeking a temporary restraining order to freeze their assets and prohibit them from committing further violations of the federal securities laws.  The SEC seeks a final judgment ordering them to disgorge their ill-gotten gains plus prejudgment interest, and for Genovese and his investment advisory firm to pay financial penalties.

Alleged Perpetrator of Ski Slope Investment Scheme Agrees to Pay Back Investor Money, Surrender Properties

On February 2, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that the Miami-based businessman behind an alleged scheme involving investments in a Vermont-based ski resort has agreed to pay back more than $81 million of investor money that he used illegally.

According to an SEC complaint filed in 2016, Ariel Quiros allegedly misused more than $50 million in investor funds to purchase a different ski resort and to fund personal expenses such as income taxes and two luxury New York City condominium purchases. Investors were told their money would specifically be used for construction projects at the Jay Peak Resort and a nearby proposed biomedical research facility.

Companies owned by Quiros also allegedly failed to contribute approximately $30 million in investor funds toward Jay Peak construction, with two projects going uncompleted. This jeopardized investors’ investments as well as their participation in the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program under which Quiros and his businesses solicited the money.

In a settlement subject to court approval, Quiros agreed to be held liable for more than $81 million in disgorgement of ill-gotten gains plus a $1 million penalty, and he must forfeit approximately $417,000 in cash that was frozen after the SEC filed the case. Quiros also agreed to surrender ownership of the two condos and ski resort he purchased with investor funds and give up his stake in more than a dozen other properties, including the Jay Peak Resort. Under the proposed settlement, the properties would be turned over to the court-appointed receiver in the case for the purpose of selling them for the benefit of defrauded investors.

The SEC also announced that a business associate of Quiros, William Stenger of Newport, Vermont, agreed to settle the charges against him in the SEC’s complaint. While Stenger was not alleged to have personally profited from the fraud, he agreed to pay a $75,000 penalty and be barred along with Quiros from participating in any future EB-5 offerings. Quiros and Stenger agreed to their settlements without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s complaint.

SEC Charges Operators of $1.2 Billion Ponzi Scheme Targeting Main Street Investors

On December 21, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced charges and an asset freeze against a group of unregistered funds and their owner who allegedly bilked thousands of retail investors, many of them seniors, in a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.

According to the SEC’s complaint, Robert H. Shapiro and a group of unregistered investment companies called the Woodbridge Group of Companies LLC, formerly headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, defrauded more than 8,400 investors in unregistered Woodbridge funds.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that Woodbridge advertised its primary business as issuing loans to supposed third-party commercial property owners paying Woodbridge 11-15 percent annual interest for “hard money,” short-term financing.  In return, Woodbridge promised to pay investors 5-10 percent interest annually.  Woodbridge and Shapiro allegedly sought to avoid investors cashing out at the end of their terms and boasted in marketing materials that “clients keep coming back to [Woodbridge] because time and experience have proven results.  Over 90% national renewal rate!”  While Woodbridge claimed it made high-interest loans to third parties, the SEC’s complaint demonstrates that the vast majority of the borrowers were Shapiro-owned companies that had no income and never made interest payments on the loans.

The SEC’s complaint states that Shapiro and Woodbridge used investors’ money to pay other investors, and paid $64.5 million in commissions to sales agents who pitched the investments as “low risk” and “conservative.”  Shapiro, of Sherman Oaks, California, is alleged to have diverted at least $21 million for his own benefit, including to charter planes, pay country club fees, and buy luxury vehicles and jewelry.  According to the complaint, the scheme collapsed in typical Ponzi fashion in early December as Woodbridge stopped paying investors and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Shapiro, Woodbridge, and certain affiliated companies are charged with fraud and violations of the securities and broker-dealer registration provisions of the federal securities laws.  The SEC is seeking return of allegedly ill-gotten gains with interest and financial penalties. This law firm is accepting Woodbridge cases on a contingency fee basis. Financial Advisors who recommended Woodbridge may have failed to exercise due diligence, and may have errors and omissions insurance that would cover Woodbridge losses.

Whistleblower Award of More Than a Million Dollars Announced

On October 12, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that a whistleblower received an award of more than $1 million for providing the SEC with new information and substantial corroborating documentation of a securities law violation by a registered entity that impacted retail customers.

More than $162 million has been awarded to 47 whistleblowers.  By law, the SEC protects the confidentiality of whistleblowers and does not disclose information that might directly or indirectly reveal a whistleblower’s identity.  Whistleblowers may be eligible for an award when they voluntarily provide the SEC with original, timely, and credible information that leads to a successful enforcement action.

Whistleblower awards can range from 10 percent to 30 percent of the money collected when the monetary sanctions exceed $1 million.  All payments are made out of an investor protection fund established by Congress that is financed entirely through monetary sanctions paid to the SEC by securities law violators.  No money is taken or withheld from harmed investors to pay whistleblower awards.

Barred Broker Charged in Real Estate Investment Scheme

On September 29, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged a former broker, his company, and his business partner in an alleged real estate investment scheme utilizing high-pressure sales tactics to pilfer $6 million from retirees and other investors while using the proceeds to fund the broker’s lavish lifestyle and start e-cigarette businesses.

The SEC alleged that Leonard Vincent Lombardo, who once worked at Stratton Oakmont and has long since been barred from the brokerage industry by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority for multiple violations, operated the scheme from behind the scenes at his Long Island-based company The Leonard Vincent Group (TLVG) with assistance from its CFO Brian Hudlin.

According to the complaint, more than 100 investors were defrauded with false claims that their money would be invested in distressed real estate, and some were told their investments had increased by more than 50 percent in a matter of months when in fact there were no actual earnings on their investments.  Lombardo allegedly invested only a small fraction of investor money in real estate and used the bulk of it for separate business ventures into the cigarette industry and personal expenses such as car payments on his BMW and Mercedes, marina fees on his boat, and visits to tanning salons.

TLVG, Lombardo, and Hudlin agreed to settlements that are subject to court approval.  TLVG and Lombardo agreed to pay disgorgement of $5,878,729.41.  Lombardo pled guilty in a parallel criminal case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.  Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Hudlin agreed to pay a $40,000 penalty.

SEC Detects Brokers Defrauding Customers

On September 28, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged three New York-based brokers with making unsuitable recommendations that resulted in substantial losses to customers and hefty commissions for the brokers.  One of the brokers agreed to pay more than $400,000 to settle the charges.

Brokers must make recommendations that are compatible with their customers’ financial needs, investment objectives, and risk tolerances.  An SEC examination of the firm Alexander Capital L.P. detected potential misconduct among certain brokers, and the ensuing investigation has led to the filing of an SEC complaint against William C. Gennity and Rocco Roveccio.  The SEC also issued an order against Laurence M. Torres.

The SEC’s complaint alleged that Gennity and Roveccio recommended investments that involved frequent buying and selling of securities without any reasonable basis to believe their customers would profit.  According to the complaint, since customers incur costs with every transaction, the price of the security must increase significantly during the brief period it is held in an account for even a minimal profit to be realized.

The SEC further claimed that Gennity and Roveccio churned customer accounts, engaged in unauthorized trading, and concealed material information from their customers – namely that the transaction costs associated with their recommendations (commissions, markups, markdowns, postage, fees, and margin interest) would almost certainly outstrip any potential monetary gains in the accounts.  According to the SEC’s complaint, customer losses totaled $683,038 while Gennity and Roveccio received approximately $280,000 and $206,000, respectively, in commissions and fees.

The SEC’s order against Torres found that he had no reasonable basis to believe it was suitable to recommend a high-cost pattern of frequent trading that gave his customers virtually no chance of making even a minimal profit.  Torres also engaged in churning and made unauthorized trades.  Without admitting or denying the findings, Torres agreed to be barred from the securities industry and penny stock trading, and he must pay $225,359.36 in disgorgement plus $25,748.02 in interest, and a $160,000 penalty.

SEC Charges Clearing Firm Officials for Improper Margin Loans, Accounting and Disclosure Failures

On September 17, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it was charging four former Penson Financial Services officials for their roles in a series of accounting and disclosure failures related to decisions to extend credit to certain customers beyond what is allowed under the federal securities laws.

Through the SEC’s investigation, it was found that Penson Financial Services provided customers nearly $100 million in margin loans secured mostly by risky, unrated municipal bonds, including some funding a horse racetrack in Texas. The loans to the customers, including the ones used to fund the racetrack’s operations, became impaired in the wake of the financial crisis. Instead of following industry standards and liquidating the collateral, accounting properly for the loan losses and disclosing the situation to its investors, Penson officials extended more loans to the same customers in hopes that their financial condition would improve and they could pay off the loans. By doing so, Penson violated the federal margin regulations. Penson’s eventual accounting and disclosures of the loan losses that reached $60 million contributed to the firm’s demise and bankruptcy filing in 2013.

The Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement said in a statement “Penson took on extraordinary risks as a broker-dealer by making margin loans to certain customers backed by speculative collateral…When these loans became impaired, Penson’s leadership improperly placed more of Penson’s critical capital at risk to bail out these customers instead of timely recording the losses and disclosing the truth about the loans to investors.” The Penson officials involved in the loans agreed to settle the charges in administrative proceedings without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.

SEC Announces Fraud Charges Against Financial Adviser for Greatly Exaggerating Assets under Management and Investment Returns

On September 9, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that they were bringing fraud charges against a Maryland-based financial services firm and its founder/CEO. Dawn J. Bennett, personally, and as CEO of the Bennett Group Financial Services, allegedly made material misstatements and omissions between 2009–2011. In an effort to attract new clients to her fledgling investment advisory business, Bennett lured new clients with claims of industry success and impressive investment returns.

Bennett and her firm knowingly made misstatements about their managed assets to three media organizations. As a result, the media organizations ranked Bennett fifth in the category of “top 100 Women Financial Advisors” and second in its listing of the “2011 Top Advisor” in Washington DC. Bennett used these distinctions to publicize her success to existing and prospective clients. In 2010, the Bennett Group paid to appear in a weekly radio show on an AM radio station in the Washington D.C. area. Bennett hosted the radio show called Financial Myth Busting with Dawn Bennett. She also determined all of the show’s content. Bennett used this platform to falsely claim that she and the Bennett Group managed assets ranging from $1.5 billion to more than $2 billion. In reality Bennett and the Bennett Group did not provide any form of management for assets exceeding approximately $407 million. Additionally, Bennett touted the Bennett Group’s investment returns and performance during the radio show’s broadcast. However, she failed to disclose that the returns were calculated for a model portfolio, in which only a small portion of her customers participated. The same fraudulent claims were published on the radio show’s Facebook page.

During the SEC’s investigation, Bennett and her firm made additional false statements in an effort to substantiate their prior fraudulent claims about the amount of managed assets. Bennett and her firm falsely asserted that they gave advice about short term cash management to three corporate clients regarding more than $1.5 billion in corporate assets. In reality, they never provided such advice. The matter will be scheduled for a public hearing before an administrative law judge for proceedings to adjudicate the Enforcement Division’s allegations and determine what, if any, remedial actions are appropriate. The Director of the SEC’s Philadelphia Regional office said “The investing public is entitled to a level of confidence that information they receive about brokerage and advisory services is accurate, and this case shows that so-called financial experts on the radio are often merely advertisers who may not be doing so truthfully.”

CITIGROUP Affiliates to Pay $180 Million in Settlement Funds to Harmed Investors

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced on August 17, 2015 that two Citigroup affiliates, Citigroup Global Markets, Inc. (CGMI) and Citigroup Alternative Investments LLC (CAI), agreed to bear all costs of distributing $180 million in settlement funds to harmed investors.
The Citigroup affiliates agreed to pay nearly $180 million to settle charges that they defrauded investors in two hedge funds by making false and misleading representations. The companies, through their financial advisors, misrepresented the funds by selling them as safe, low-risk, and suitable for traditional bond investors. The funds later crumbled and eventually collapsed during the financial crisis.
An SEC investigation found that the Citigroup affiliates made false and misleading representations to investors in the ASTA/MAT funds and the Falcon funds, which collectively raised nearly $3 billion in capital from approximately 4,000 investors before collapsing. Financial Advisors failed to disclose the very real risks of the funds. Many of the misleading representations made by Citigroup employees were in conflict with disclosures made in marketing documents and written materials provided to investors. Furthermore, CAI accepted nearly $110 million in additional investments and continued to assure investors that the funds were low risk, well capitalized investments with adequate liquidity, even as the funds began to collapse.
Andrew Ceresney, the Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division said “Firms cannot insulate themselves from liability for their employees’ misrepresentations by invoking the fine print contained in written disclosures,” he added “Advisers at these Citigroup affiliates were supposed to be looking out for investors’ best interests, but falsely assured them they were making safe investments even when the funds were on the brink of disaster.”
CGMI and CAI consented to the SEC order without admitting or denying the findings.

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