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FINRA Disciplinary Action Against FSC Securities Corporation

On December 20, 2017, a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent was issued in which FSC Securities Coporation was censured, fined $100,000, and required to provide FINRA with a plan to remediate eligible customers who qualified for, but did not receive, the applicable mutual fund sales-charge waiver. As part of this settlement, the firm agreed to pay restitution to eligible customers, which is estimated to total $414,261 (the amount eligible customers were overcharged, inclusive of interest). Without admitting or denying the findings, the firm consented to the sanctions and to the entry of findings that it disadvantaged certain retirement plan and charitable organization customers that were eligible to purchase Class A shares in certain mutual funds without a front-end sales charge. The findings stated that these eligible customers were instead sold Class A shares with a front-end sales charge, or Class B or C shares with back-end sales charges and higher ongoing fees and expenses. These sales disadvantaged eligible customers by causing the customers to pay higher fees than they were actually required to pay.

The findings also stated that the firm failed to reasonably supervise the application of sales-charge waivers to eligible mutual fund sales. The firm relied on its financial advisors to determine the applicability of sales-charge waivers, but failed to maintain adequate written policies or procedures to assist financial advisors in making this determination. In addition, the firm failed to adequately notify and train its financial advisors regarding the availability of mutual fund sales-charge waivers for eligible customers. The firm also failed to adopt adequate controls to detect instances in which they did not provide sales-charge waivers to eligible customers in connection with their mutual fund purchases. As a result of the firm’s failure to apply available sales-charge waivers, the firm estimates that eligible customers were overcharged by approximately $380,520 for mutual fund purchases made since January 1, 2011. If you believe that you have suffered losses as a result of FSC Securities Corporation’s misconduct, you may contact David A. Weintraub, P.A., 7805 SW 6th Court, Plantation, FL 33324.  By phone:  954.693.7577 or 800.718.1422.

FINRA Disciplinary Action Against Next Financial Group, Inc.

On December 6, 2017, a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver and Consent was issued in which Next Financial Group, Inc. was censured, fined $750,000, and required to retain an independent consultant to conduct a comprehensive review of the adequacy of its policies, systems and procedures (written and otherwise) and training. Without admitting or denying the findings, the firm consented to the sanctions and to the entry of findings that it failed to establish, maintain, and implement a supervisory system reasonably designed to detect and address excessively traded accounts. The findings stated that the supervisory failings resulted from an inadequate corrective action taken by the firm in response to prior FINRA disciplinary actions that included a failure to use exception reports or any other reasonably designed system to detect excessive trading. In addition, the firm failed to identify excessive trading due to lack of clarity regarding supervisory responsibilities. Due to flaws in its supervisory system, the firm did not reasonably supervise a registered representative’s excessive trading activity. If the firm had instituted reasonably designed procedures to ensure branch audits were completed and findings of excessive trading acted upon, it could have prevented this activity.

The findings also stated that the firm failed to implement a supervisory system and procedures reasonably designed to ensure appropriate suitability determinations in its variable annuity sales, including L-share contracts. The firm failed to establish, maintain and enforce systematic surveillance procedures to identify possible inappropriate rates of variable annuity exchanges. The firm also failed to enforce its existing procedures relating to the suitability review of variable annuity transactions. In addition, the firm did not establish, maintain, and enforce a reasonably designed supervisory system and WSPs related to the sale of multi-share class variable annuities. The firm’s WSPs failed to provide representatives and principals with guidance or suitability considerations for sales of different variable annuity share classes. Moreover, the firm failed to establish, maintain, and enforce WSPs or provide sufficient guidance to its representatives and principals on the sale of long-term income riders, such as long-term income riders with L-share contracts. The findings also included that the firm lacked a supervisory system reasonably designed to ensure that information included on consolidated reports provided to customers was accurate. The firm’s supervisory system was inadequate and it failed to enforce its own procedures.

FINRA also found that the firm failed to have supervisory procedures reasonably designed to detect and monitor for misleading communications on its website. As a result, the firm omitted material facts from its website that caused its communications with the public to be misleading. FINRA also found that the firm failed to establish, maintain, and enforce a system and WSPs reasonably designed to achieve compliance with FINRA rule 2310(c) related to maintaining records of all non-cash compensation received by it or its associated persons. As a result, the firm failed to track and verify non-cash compensation received by its representatives that came in the form of direct sponsorship payments by product issuers to vendors/merchants. Emails of representatives reflected multiple occurrences of product issuers paying vendors/merchants for branch client events directly without the firm’s knowledge and approval of the non-cash compensation. If you believe that you have suffered losses as a result of Next Financial Group’s misconduct, you may contact David A. Weintraub, P.A., 7805 SW 6th Court, Plantation, FL 33324.  By phone:  954.693.7577 or 800.718.1422.

FINRA Hearing Panel Bars Broker for Defrauding Elderly, Blind Customer

On November 9, 2017, FINRA announced an extended hearing panel barred broker Hank Mark Werner of Northport, New York, for fraudulently churning and excessively trading the accounts of his customer, a blind, elderly widow, and for making unsuitable recommendations. The hearing panel also ordered Werner to pay more than $155,000 in restitution to the widow, fined him $80,000 and ordered disgorgement of more than $10,000 representing commissions received for recommending the purchase of an unsuitable variable annuity.

Werner had been the elderly widow’s broker, and that of her blind husband until his 2012 death, since 1995. According to the hearing panel decision, Werner plundered his customer’s accounts by engaging in such an active trading strategy that, when the high commissions he charged were taken into account, it was impossible for the customer to make money. The panel found Werner frequently bought and sold a security within a week or two, and charged exorbitant commissions even though the blind widow’s financial circumstances required that Werner invest her assets with a minimum amount of risk. She was 77 and in ill health when Werner began churning her accounts. Werner engaged in more than 700 trades from October 2012 to December 2015, generating approximately $210,000 in commissions while the customer lost more than $175,000 as a result of his reckless trading. The decision also noted that it was apparent to the Hearing Panel that Werner took advantage of the customer’s vulnerability after her husband died in September 2012.

The hearing panel concluded that Werner engaged in egregious misconduct and is unfit to work in the securities industry.

Legend Securities, Inc., which was also named in an amended disciplinary complaint, failed to respond and accordingly was held in default. The complaint charged that Legend failed to reasonably supervise Werner, which allowed him to engage in churning his customer’s account, and failed to establish, maintain, and enforce an adequate supervisory system to ensure that Werner was subject to heightened supervision. The hearing officer issued a default decision censuring and fining the firm $200,000. Legend voluntarily paid $20,000 in partial restitution to the customer.

Evaluating professional designations utilized by financial advisors

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So, a local financial advisor hands you a business card identifying one or more of the following professional designations: CFP, CFPN, CPFA, CMA, CFMP, CDP, and/or CEA.  Should you be impressed?  What do the letters stand for?  Who are the issuing organizations?  Do the issuing organizations exist?  Were there prerequisites for obtaining the designations?  Were examinations required?  What types of examinations?  Was a college degree required?  Are there continuing education requirements?  Are the continuing education requirements meaningful?  Can you verify the authenticity of the designation?  Does the issuing organization address customer complaints?  Does the issuing organization publish a list of disciplined designees?

Confused?  You should be.  According to records maintained by FINRA, there are more than 150 known so called “professional designations” either in use today by financial advisors, or that have previously been used by financial advisors.  Some of those designations look, sound and feel remarkably similar to each other.  As an example, what is the difference between a CFP and a CFPN?  Are they issued by the same organization?  Are they connected with each other in any way?  They are not.  “CFP” is a designation known as “Certified Financial Planner.”  It is issued by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.  “CFPN” is known as “Christian Financial Professionals Network Certified Member.”  Though the abbreviations are similar, that is where the similarities end.  The prerequisites for earning the Certified Financial Planner designation are indeed rigorous.  The prerequisites for the “CFPN” designation are less clear.  According to FINRA, one is eligible for the CFPN certification with 10 years of full-time financial experience, signing a “Statement of Faith”, taking three training sessions, and passing a closed-book exam.  Links on the FINRA website to the Christian Financial Professional Network take you to www.cfpn.org  It is unclear whether this organization still exists, notwithstanding the fact that FINRA’s website states that the designation is currently offered.  Web searches lead to an entity called Kingdom Advisors, which offers what it calls a Certified Kingdom Advisor designation.  According to its website, its designation “allows you to work with someone who has committed and been trained to be a person of character who, from a biblical worldview, serves you with biblical financial advice so that you can confidently navigate financial decisions as a faithful steward.”

It is up to each lawyer to diligently determine the value, if any, to place on certain designations.  Both the American National Standards Institute and the National Commission for Certifying Agencies accredit certain designations.  The following link lists the accredited designations:  https://www.finra.org/investors/accredited-designations .  FINRA also maintains a list of designations about which it is aware: https://www.finra.org/investors/professional-designations .  It behooves any attorney who is referring clients to financial advisors to investigate their backgrounds.  One piece of this investigation is verifying any claimed designation, and assessing its value.  The CFP Board’s website contains a section dedicated to verifying whether one’s CFP designation is in good standing.  It takes about 5 minutes to confirm this particular designation.  Time well spent.

Wells Fargo Broker-Dealers Ordered to Pay $3.4 Million in Restitution and Reminds Firms of Sales Practice Obligations for Volatility-Linked Products

On October 16, 2017, FINRA announced that it had ordered Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC and Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network, LLC to pay more than $3.4 million in restitution to affected customers for unsuitable recommendations of volatility-linked exchange-traded products (ETPs) and related supervisory failures. FINRA found that between July 1, 2010, and May 1, 2012, certain Wells Fargo registered representatives recommended volatility-linked ETPs without fully understanding their risks and features.

Volatility-linked ETPs are complex products that could be misunderstood and improperly sold by registered representatives. Certain Wells Fargo representatives mistakenly believed that the products could be used as a long-term hedge on their customers’ equity positions in the event of a market downturn. In fact, volatility-linked ETPs are generally short-term trading products that degrade significantly over time and should not be used as part of a long-term buy-and-hold investment strategy.

FINRA found that Wells Fargo failed to implement a reasonable system to supervise solicited sales of these products during the relevant time period. However, FINRA found that Wells Fargo took remedial action to correct its supervisory deficiencies in May 2012, prior to detection by FINRA and around the time that the firm was fined for similar violations relating to sales of leveraged and inverse ETPs. In addition, Wells Fargo provided substantial assistance to FINRA’s investigation by, among other things, engaging a consulting firm to determine the appropriate restitution to be provided to affected customers. FINRA took Wells Fargo’s previous corrective actions and cooperation into account when assessing the sanctions in this matter, and encourages member firms to assess their own sales and supervision of volatility ETPs.

In settling with FINRA, Wells Fargo neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings.

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.

Morgan Stanley Sanctioned $13 Million in Fines and Restitution for Failing to Supervise Sales of Unit Investment Trusts

On September 25, 2017, FINRA announced that it had fined Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC $3.25 million and required the firm to pay approximately $9.78 million in restitution to more than 3,000 affected customers for failing to supervise its representatives’ short-term trades of unit investment trusts (UITs).

A UIT is an investment company that offers units in a portfolio of securities that terminates on a specific maturity date, often after 15 or 24 months. UITs impose a variety of charges, including a deferred sales charge and a creation and development fee, that can total approximately 3.95 percent for a typical 24-month UIT. A registered representative who repeatedly recommends that a customer sell his or her UIT position before the maturity date and then “rolls over” those funds into a new UIT causes the customer to incur increased sale charges over time, raising suitability concerns.

FINRA found that from January 2012 through June 2015, hundreds of Morgan Stanley representatives executed short-term UIT rollovers, including UITs rolled over more than 100 days before maturity, in thousands of customer accounts. FINRA further found that Morgan Stanley failed to adequately supervise representatives’ sales of UITs by providing insufficient guidance to supervisors regarding how they should review UIT transactions to detect unsuitable short-term trading, failing to implement an adequate system to detect short-term UIT rollovers, and failing to provide for supervisory review of rollovers prior to execution within the firm’s order entry system. Morgan Stanley also failed to conduct training for registered representatives specific to UITs.

In settling this matter, Morgan Stanley nether admitted or denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings.

SunTrust Charged with Improperly Recommending Higher-Fee Mutual Funds

On September 14, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had charged the investment services subsidiary of SunTrust Banks with collecting more than $1.1 million in avoidable fees from clients by improperly recommending more expensive share classes of various mutual funds when cheaper shares of the same funds were available.

SunTrust Investment Services agreed to pay a penalty of more than $1.1 million to settle the charges.  SunTrust separately began refunding the overcharged fees plus interest to affected clients after the SEC started its investigation.  SEC examiners cited the practice during a compliance review of the firm in mid-2015.  More than 4,500 accounts were affected.

According to the SEC’s order, the Atlanta-based firm breached its fiduciary duty to act in its clients’ best interests by recommending and purchasing costlier mutual fund share classes that charge a type of marketing and distribution fee known as 12b-1 fees.  Investors were not informed that they were eligible for less costly share class options that did not charge 12b-1 fees.  The avoidable fees flowed back to SunTrust in the form of higher commissions from the funds.

The SEC’s order found that SunTrust violated Sections 206(2), 206(4) and 207 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rule 206(4)-7.  Without admitting or denying the findings, SunTrust agreed to pay the penalty totaling $1,148,071.77 as well as disgorgement plus interest on any leftover amount of the avoidable 12b-1 fees that are being refunded to clients.  The firm also agreed to be censured.

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