News & Resources

Puerto Rico to Host North American Securities Administrators Conference, Regulation for the Ages

It is ironic that Puerto Rico will serve as host for NASAA’s 2015 Annual Conference. Puerto Rico is ground zero since 2013 for claims of investor losses. Since 2013 hundreds of arbitration claims have been filed by investors in Puerto Rico municipal debt. Most of the claims have been brought by clients of UBS Financial Services. As of this date there have been three FINRA arbitration awards rendered against UBS Financial Services, all in favor of the investor Claimants. Puerto Rico bond investors have filed claims against other firms as well, including Merrill Lynch, Santander Securities, Popular Securities and Oriental Financial Services Corp.
Likewise, investors in the “upper 48 states” have also suffered significant losses investing in Puerto Rico debt. Those investors who have not already retained counsel should have their portfolios evaluated by an experienced Securities Arbitration Attorney. David A. Weintraub, Esq. spent the first
13 years of his career representing Wall Street. He now represents investors asserting claims against Wall Street’s largest firms. He is available to consult with you at your convenience.

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.

SEC Pays More Than $3 Million to Whistleblower

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced today, that a company insider, whose information was critical to the SEC to crack a complex fraud investigation, received a multi-million dollar payout. The whistleblower award of more than $3 million is the third highest award since the 2011 inception of the SEC’s whistleblower program.
Whistleblowers who provide the SEC with unique and useful information that contributes to a successful enforcement action are eligible for awards that can range from 10 percent to 30 percent of the money collected when financial sanctions exceed $1 million. By law, the SEC protects the confidentiality of whistleblowers and does not disclose information that might directly or indirectly reveal a whistleblower’s identity.
In reference to today’s award, Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the Office of the Whistleblower, said “The award made today is another testament to the agency’s commitment to reward those who provide high-quality information that leads to successful enforcement actions and related actions,” He added, “Our office continues to receive thousands of whistleblower tips each year. When those tips bear fruit, those individuals, like today’s whistleblower, may receive significant financial awards.”
“Insiders may hold the key to helping our investigators unlock intricate fraudulent schemes,” said Andrew Ceresney, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “By providing significant financial incentives for people to come forward, the SEC’s whistleblower program continues to be profoundly effective in helping us protect investors and hold wrongdoers accountable.” As for this particular case, the whistleblower’s specific and detailed information comprehensively laid out the fraudulent scheme which otherwise would have been very difficult for investigators to detect. The whistleblower’s initial tip also led to related actions that increased the whistleblower’s award.
If you believe you have information evidencing violations of the federal securities laws, please contact David A. Weintraub, P.A., 800.718.1422

Ariel Luis Hernandez, Former Stockbroker Stole Hundreds of Thousands From Century Village Retirees

On January 22, 2015, Ariel Luis Hernandez appeared in Broward County Court to face two charges of grand theft from an elderly person and misuse of identification. The initial bond of $300,000 has since been increased to $1 million. Broward Judge John “Jay” Hurley ordered him not to set foot on Century Village property or advertise financial services seminars or informational luncheons.
According to FINRA, Mr. Ariel Hernandez, was barred from the financial securities industry in March 2014, based upon allegations that he wired money form a client’s brokerage account to a bank without the client’s permission or knowledge. Mr. Hernandez used his position as a financial advisor to gain the trust of his victims. According to FINRA records, Mr. Hernandez is not currently registered, his previous employment records include: a) Liberty Partners Financial Services, b) Summit Brokerage Services and c) J.B. Hanauer.
According to Pembroke Pines Police, Hernandez forged the signatures of unwitting victims to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from elderly clients who trusted him with their investment accounts. Three Century Village residents lost over $200,000, Detective Thomas Moran said he expected more victims to come forward.
Pembroke Pines Police Captain, Al Xiques, said “Although this is an economic crime, a white-collar crime, it’s actually one of the most heinous types of crime you can commit…The money was literally what these people were going to live off of for the rest of their lives.”
Attorney David Weintraub is currently representing three of the victims in this case.

FINRA Bars Broker for Stealing $89,000 From an Elderly Customer

On December 22, 2014, FINRA announced that Jeffrey C. McClure has been permanently barred from the securities industry. Mr. McClure, allegedly, wrote himself 36 checks totaling $88,850 drawn from the customer’s bank account, without her knowledge. Through its investigation, FINRA found that from December 2012 to Agust 2014, McClure had access to the checks because the elderly customer had authorized him to pay her rent and other expenses; instead, he deposited the checks amounting to nearly $89,000 to his personal bank account and used the funds for his personal expenses. At the time, Mr. McClure worked for Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC. The affiliated bank that held the accounts, located in Chico, California, has made the customer whole for her losses.

In settling this matter, Mr. McClure neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings. FINRA’s investigation was conducted by the Office of Fraud Detection and Market Intelligence and the Department of Enforcement. In a statement, FINRA’s Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said “FINRA has a zero tolerance policy for brokers who steal form their clients, especially those who are most vulnerable. Rooting out this type of misconduct and removing these kinds of bad actors from the industry is a top priority.”

FINRA Fines Merrill Lynch $1.9 Million Plus Orders it to Pay $540,000 as Restitution to Affected Customers

On December 16, 2014, FINRA fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated $1.9 million for fair pricing and supervisory violations in connection with more than 700 retail customer transactions in distressed Motors Liquidation Company Senior Notes (MLC Notes). In addition, Merrill Lynch was ordered to pay $540,000, plus interest, in restitution to affected customers.

Through its investigation, FINRA found that Merrill Lynch’s Global Credit Trading Desk purchased MLC Notes issued by General Motors Corporation, prior to its bankruptcy, from its retail customers at prices below the prevailing market price. The Credit Desk, after accumulating small lots of discounted MLC Notes, sold these Notes to other broker-dealers at a higher price, within the prevailing market price. Accordingly, in 716 instances, Merrill Lynch purchased MLC Notes at prices that were not fair to its customers. In fact, out of the 716 customer transactions 510 of them had markdowns in excess of 10 percent.

In addition, FINRA found that Merrill Lynch did not have in place an adequate supervisory system to detect whether the firm’s Credit Desk executed customer transactions at a fair price. Specifically, the firm lacked post-trade best execution or fair pricing reviews or failed to conduct fair pricing or best execution post-trade reviews. As part of the sanctions, Merrill Lynch is also ordered to submit three reports over the next 18 months regarding the effectiveness of the firm’s supervisory system with respect to the pricing of retail customer transactions executed by the Credit Desk.

In a statement, FINRA said “…We expect firms to adhere to their fair pricing obligations to customers when transacting in lower-price or distressed securities. Even after factoring in the nature of the market for these types of instruments, the markdowns charged were simply unacceptable, as was Merrill Lynch’s failure to conduct post-trade fair pricing or best execution reviews for customer transactions executed on the Credit Desk.” On the other hand, Merrill Lynch neither admitted nor denied the allegations, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings.

FINRA Expels NSM Securities, Inc. and bars Niyukt Raghu Bhasin from Association with any FINRA Member

In November 2014, FINRA announced that it had submitted an Offer of Settlement in which NSM Securities, Inc. was expelled from FINRA membership, and Niyukt Raghu Bhasin was barred from association with any FINRA member in any capacity. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the firm and Bhasin consented to the sanctions and to the entry of findings that the firm, acting through and at the direction of its founder, owner, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Bhasin, derived most of its revenue from actively and aggressively trading stocks in the commission-based accounts of its retail customers.

The findings stated that Bhasin prioritized his firm’s profits over the duties owed to its customers and chose not to establish, maintain and enforce a supervisory system tailored to the firm’s business. Instead, Bhasin fostered a culture of non-compliance that resulted in widespread sales practice violations, numerous customer complaints, related reporting violations and cold-calling abuses. The firm, through Bhasin, failed to establish, maintain and enforce a system, including written supervisory procedures (WSPs), to supervise its core activity, an active and aggressive investment strategy. The firm, through Bhasin, failed to monitor for, detect and prevent churning, excessive trading, related violations of Regulation T, and unsuitable investment recommendations, and failed to adequately review electronic correspondence, adequately handle customer complaints, and place certain brokers who were the subjects of multiple customer complaints and arbitrations on heightened supervision. The firm’s culture of non-compliance that Bhasin fostered harmed the firm’s customers, as the lax to non-existent oversight of its brokers resulted in significant sales practice abuses. As a result, the firm willfully violated Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder.

The findings also stated that in implementing Bhasin’s active and aggressive trading strategy, and in order to generate commissions, the firm committed multiple violations of Regulation T and the related NASD®/FINRA rules governing the extension of credit. Specifically, the firm, acting through its brokers, made a practice of allowing customers to buy securities in cash accounts where the cost to buy the securities was met by the sale of the same securities, known as free-riding. The findings also included that the firm’s active and aggressive trading strategy, as developed and instituted by Bhasin, led to numerous customer complaints. The firm, through Bhasin, failed to report and failed to timely report customer complaints to FINRA, and failed to disclose and/or timely disclose material facts on its brokers’ Uniform Applications for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (Forms U4) or Uniform Termination Notices for Securities Industry Registration (Forms U5).

FINRA found that Bhasin willfully failed to disclose material facts or information on his own Form U4, and willfully filed false and misleading amendments to his Form U4. The firm, through Bhasin, also filed an untimely and inaccurate Form U5 for its former chief compliance officer (CCO). FINRA also found that the firm, through Bhasin, failed to institute adequate procedures for cold-calling prospective customers. As a result, the firm, through its brokers and other representatives, initiated telephone solicitations to persons whose numbers were on the firm’s do-not-call list and/or the national do-not-call list.

SEC Charges Unregistered Broker in Tampa Area With Stealing From Investors in Fraudulent Day Trading Scheme

On November 18, 2014, the SEC announced that it had charged an unregistered broker living outside Tampa, Florida, with stealing investor funds as part of a fraudulent day trading scheme.

The SEC alleged that Albert J. Scipione and his business partner solicited investors to establish accounts at their company called Traders Café for the purposes of day trading, which entails the rapid buying and selling of stocks throughout the day in hope that the stock values continue climbing or falling for the seconds to minutes they own them so they can lock in quick profits.  Scipione touted Traders Café’s software trading platform and made a series of false misrepresentations to investors about low commissions and fees, high trading leverage, and safety of their assets.  More than $500,000 was raised from investors who were assured that funds invested with Traders Café would be segregated and used only for day trading or other specific business purposes.  However, many customers encountered technical service problems that prevented them from trading at all, and Scipione and his business partner squandered nearly all of the money in investor accounts for their personal use.  Meanwhile, Traders Café was never registered with the SEC as a broker-dealer as required under the federal securities laws.

In a parallel action, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida announced that Scipione has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed against Scipione in federal court in Tampa, customers across the country deposited approximately $367,000 with Traders Café from December 2012 to October 2013 with the intention of opening day trading accounts.  Traders Café also received approximately $150,000 from an investor who invested directly in Traders Café’s business. Customers encountered problems with Traders Café from the outset, and many of them cancelled their accounts and requested refunds of their remaining account balances.  Scipione and Ionno tried to cover up their fraudulent scheme by offering excuses and delays for why customers could not get refunds.  Eventually less than $1,200 remained in Traders Café’s accounts primarily due to the repeated misuse of investor funds by Scipione.

The SEC’s complaint against Scipione alleged that he violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 as well as Section 15(a) and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5.  The SEC is seeking disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, financial penalties, and permanent injunctive relief to enjoin Scipione from future violations of the federal securities laws.

SEC Sanctions 13 Firms for Improper Sales of Puerto Rico Junk Bonds

On November 3, 2014, the SEC announced that it hadsanctioned 13 firms for violating a rule primarily designed to protect retail investors in the municipal securities market.

All municipal bond offerings include a “minimum denomination” that establishes the smallest amount of the bonds that a dealer firm is allowed to sell an investor in a single transaction.  Municipal issuers often set high minimum denomination amounts for so-called “junk bonds” that have a higher default risk that may make the investments inappropriate for retail investors.  Because retail investors tend to purchase securities in smaller amounts, this minimum denomination standard helps ensure that dealer firms sell high-risk securities only to investors who are capable of making sizeable investments and more prepared to bear the higher risk.

In its surveillance of trading in the municipal bond market, the SEC Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit detected improper sales below a $100,000 minimum denomination set in a $3.5 billion offering of junk bonds by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico earlier this year.  The SEC’s subsequent investigation identified a total of 66 occasions when dealer firms sold the Puerto Rico bonds to investors in amounts below $100,000.  The agency instituted administrative proceedings against the firms behind those improper sales: Charles Schwab & Co., Hapoalim Securities USA, Interactive Brokers LLC, Investment Professionals Inc., J.P. Morgan Securities, Lebenthal & Co., National Securities Corporation, Oppenheimer & Co., Riedl First Securities Co. of Kansas, Stifel Nicolaus & Co., TD Ameritrade, UBS Financial Services, and Wedbush Securities.

The enforcement actions are the SEC’s first under Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) Rule G-15(f), which establishes the minimum denomination requirement.  Each firm agreed to settle the SEC’s charges and pay penalties ranging from $54,000 to $130,000.

The SEC’s orders against the 13 dealers find that in addition to violating MSRB Rule G-15(f) by executing sales below the minimum denomination, they violated Section 15B(c)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which prohibits violations of any MSRB rule.  Without admitting or denying the findings, each of the firms agreed to be censured.  They also agreed to review their policies and procedures and make any changes that are necessary to ensure proper compliance with MSRB Rule G-15(f).

It was unclear from the SEC’s announcement whether customers had initiated FINRA arbitrations or any other types of adversarial proceedings.  If you believe that you have suffered losses as a result of improper sales of Puerto Rico bonds, 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 Fines Merrill Lynch a Total of $6 Million for Reg SHO Violations and Supervisory Failures

On October 27, 2014, FINRA announced that it had censured and fined Merrill Lynch Professional Clearing Corp. (Merrill Lynch PRO) $3.5 million for violating Regulation SHO, an SEC rule that established a regulatory framework to govern short sales and prevent abusive naked short selling. FINRA also censured and fined its affiliated broker-dealer, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (Merrill Lynch), $2.5 million for failing to establish, maintain and enforce supervisory systems and procedures related to Regulation SHO and other areas.

In addition to curtailing naked short selling, among other things, Regulation SHO also aims to reduce the number of instances in which sellers fail to timely deliver securities. Regulation SHO requires a firm to timely “close out” any fail-to-deliver positions by borrowing or purchasing securities of like kind and quantity. Additionally, Regulation SHO permits firms to reasonably allocate fail-to-deliver positions to its broker-dealer clients that caused or contributed to the firm’s fail-to-deliver position.

FINRA found that from September 2008 through July 2012, Merrill Lynch PRO did not take any action to close out certain fail-to-deliver positions, and did not have systems and procedures in place to address the close-out requirements of Regulation SHO for the majority of that period. FINRA also found that from September 2008 through March 2011, Merrill Lynch’s supervisory systems and procedures were inadequate and improperly permitted the firm to allocate fail-to-deliver positions to the firm’s broker-dealer clients based solely on each client’s short position without regard to which clients caused or contributed to Merrill Lynch’s fail-to-deliver position.

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