Massachusetts claims that Morgan Stanley Smith Barney (MS) ran a high-pressure sales contest to give its financial advisers incentive to get clients to borrow funds against their brokerage accounts. Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin filed the complaint against the firm.According to the state, from 1/14 through 4/15, Morgan Stanley conducted two contests in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that involved 30 advisers. The object of the contests were to convince customers to take out loans that were securities-based. It involved them borrowing against the value of securities found in their portfolio. The securities were to be collateral.Galvin’s office said that the contests urged Morgan Stanley advisers to cross-sell loans that were backed by investment accounts in order to enhance lending business, as well as banking, and stay competitive with other firms. Galvin claims that advisers were told to get clients to establish credit lines even if they had no plans of using them. The state’s complaint said that clients would be targeted after they’d mention certain key “catalysts” including graduations, weddings, and tax liabilities.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has announced that PNC Investments will pay nearly $225K in restitution for charging retirement clients too much for mutual fund investments. According to the regulator, the brokerage firm did not apply waivers for investors in certain Class A share mutual funds even though there was a waiver for front-end charges for eligible customers.
Instead, said FINRA, PNC Investments sold Class A shares customers with a front-end load or other shares that had a back-end load and higher fees and expenses, some of which were charged on an ongoing basis. Because of this, certain customers were charged excessive fees and paid them.
FINRA said that PNC Investments charged 121 customer accounts in excess of $191,740 for mutual funds—although the actual amount, with interest, was closer to $224,750. PNC will pay restitution to eligible investors.
The brokerage firm self-reported the overcharges after reviewing its own conduct last year to assess whether it was issuing the sales waiver to those that were eligible. FINRA said that the broker-dealer experienced lapses in supervision, did not keep up written policies and procedures that were adequate, and failed to help advisers assess when to waive the sales charges.
Guy Gentile, who owns a New York-based brokerage firm, is charged with fraudulently inflating two micro-cap stocks’ prices before selling them to investors. His alleged actions purportedly allowed him to make $17.2M in gross trading proceeds.
Gentile was indicted in federal court. He and co-conspirators Itamar Cohen and Michael Taxon, both Canadian stock promoters, are accused of buying Kentucky USA Energy Inc. and Raven Gold Corp. shares from 4/07 to 6/08 and then using misleading marketing collateral and manipulative trading to inflate the shares. Taxon and Cohen have already pleaded guilty to their involvement in the Ponzi scheme. Gentile, who is charged with securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud, could be facing twenty years in prison.
Running a Ponzi scam is not the only way to get in trouble for it. Connecticut fund manager Marlon Quann has been ordered to surrender nearly $81M in profit for helping Thomas Petters run his $3.5B Ponzi scheme. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said that Quann hid evidence of the fraud in part with $187M in “round trip” transactions.” The SEC also sued Quan’s Acorn Capital Group LLC, Stewardship Investment Advisors LLC, and ACG II LLC.
Former AIG Affiliate Brokerage Firms to Pay $7.5M Fine, $2M Restitution Over High-Priced Mutual Funds
Royal Alliance Associates, FSC Securities Corp., and SagePoint Financial have agreed to pay over $9.5M to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission charges accusing them of guiding clients toward expensive mutual fund share classes so that the firms could garner additional fees. The brokerage firms were formerly under the AIG Advisor Group umbrella.
According to the regulator, the firms put clients in share classes that charged 12b-1 fees for distribution and marketing even though they were eligible to purchase shares that didn’t come with these added fees.
Because of the placement in the costlier fund classes, the firms collected an additional $2M in fees and did not disclose their conflict of interest in choosing the share classes that would make them more money.
The AIG affiliates are accused of not monitoring advisory accounts quarterly to make sure that churning didn’t take place. The SEC order is claiming breach of fiduciary duty and numerous compliance failures.
California Businessman Allegedly Stole Investor Money, Covered Up Fraud
Daniel R. Nase is accused of stealing investor assets and then trying to conceal the theft once the SEC discovered his scam. The regulator claims that the California businessman raised funds from investors via an unregistered offing of common stock in his Bic Real Estate Development Corp. He then used the funds to cover his own bills.
The Commission said that Nase, who was not registered with any state regulator or the SEC to sell investments, told investors that his company would invest in promissory notes and real estate. Instead, he improperly placed those under his name, his wife’s name, of the name of their family trust. He allegedly tried to hide his fraud by investing the assets that he stole back into BIC to make it look like he was raising his equity stake in the company.
California Water District Accused of Misleading Investors in $77M Bond Offering
The SEC is charging Westlands Water District with misleading investors about its financial state while issuing a $77M bond offering. The agricultural water district is the largest one in the state of California.
According to the SEC, Westland, in prior bond offerings, consented to keep a 1.25 debt service coverage ratio but discovered in 2010 that a lower water supply and drought conditions would keep it from making enough money to keep up that ratio, which measures an issuer’s ability to make future bond payments. To meet the ratio without upping customer rates, Westlands reclassified the funds.
A Financial Industry Arbitration panel says that Ameriprise Financial (AMP) must pay over $2M to the estate of Glenny B. White for losses related to fraud committed by an ex-firm broker. The executor of White’s estate claims that Ameriprise Financial Services did not properly supervise former broker Jeffrey Davis.
In 2014, Davis admitted to stealing money from White and other clients. White was his client for almost ten years before she found out in 2013 that he was stealing funds from her. She died at the age of 91 in 2014.
Davis has since been fired from Ameriprise, and FINRA barred him from the brokerage industry. Last year, he was sentenced to over four years in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud and admitting to stealing almost $200K from clients.
On Finra’s BrokerCheck report about Davis, it is noted that in at least two cases involving Ameriprise clients the firm had reported to the regulator that their funds were misappropriated.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has approved the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s plan to shorten the waiting period for when certain information reported on Form U5 can be released on BrokerCheck.com from 15 days to three days. This includes information about broker firings. The modification will go into effect on December 12.
Brokerage firms use Form U5 to give notice of when a broker has been let go. This notification is published on BrokerCheck, which is a public database that includes background information about registered brokers, as well whether any of them have a disciplinary history and what that may be.
The 15 days was so that brokers could have time to explain why they were fired. FINRA, however, has now decided that it is important to notify the public of such terminations sooner than that so that the investors who are thinking hiring these brokers receive this employment history right away. The self-regulatory organization says that it believes three business days still gives a broker a chance to comment on his/her firing.
BrokerCheck.com is an excellent resource for looking up information about a broker and his/her history. It’s important as an investor that you do your due diligence when considering whether to have someone handle your investments and finances. You can also get information about a broker from the Central Registration Depository, which is a computerized database. Another way to find out about a broker is to call your state securities regulator and request access to his/her registration, disciplinary, and employment information. You can get information about how to reach your state regulator through the North American Securities Administrators Association’s website.
Former Stockbroker Raises Over $1.2M from Customers to Remodel His Home
The Securities and Exchange Commission is charging ex-stockbroker Bernard M. Parker with Securities Act of 1933 and Securities Exchange Act of 1934 violations, as well as violations of Rule 10b-5. The regulator says that Parker raised over $1.2M from long-term brokerage customers and others by getting them to think they were buying real estate tax client certificates and would make up to 9% yearly interest.
Instead, says the SEC, Parker only used a small part of that money to buy the liens. He used their other funds to remodel his house, pay his father-in-law’s bills, and make car payments. The agency also claims that the ex-broker conducted the unregistered and fraudulent investment offering using his Parker Financial Services from ’08 to ’14. He also purportedly failed to notify the investment advisory firm and broker-dealer where he was dually registered about his side business.
The Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania has filed criminal charges against Parker in a parallel case over the alleged broker fraud.
Political Intelligence Firm Admits to Compliance Failures
Marwood Group Research LLC has admitted to compliance failures and will settle the SEC’s case against it by paying a $375,000 penalty. According to the Commission, the firm did not properly notify compliance officers about the times that analysts received potential material nonpublic data from government employees.
The firm’s own written policies and procedures are supposed to play a key part in Marwood Group’s efforts to stop nonpublic and confidential data from reaching its clients so as not to influence their decisions regarding securities trading. Yet its misconduct happened in 2013 when analysts were looking for information about pending regulatory approvals and policies at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Over two years after it was initially proposed, a FINRA rule requiring that broker-dealers include a link to the self-regulatory organization’s BrokerCheck database has been approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The rule slated to go into effect, at the latest, at 180 days after the FINRA regulatory notice is published in the Federal Register. The deadline for publishing the notice is December 7, 2015.
Per the rule, a brokerage firm will have to include an obvious reference and hyperlink to the front page of FINRA’s BrokerCheck.com. Links to BrokerCheck would also have to be included on the profile pages of each broker.
FINRA has been trying to make retail investors more aware that BrokerCheck exists. The online database includes the work history of every registered broker, where they are registered, and other information, such as if they’ve been subject to disciplinary measures or named on previous securities cases.
A previous version of the proposed rule had called for LinkedIn and Twitter profiles of brokers to also include links back to BrokerCheck. However, rather than link directly to that home page, the hyperlink would have taken an investor to the BrokerCheck profile of a particular representative. Many in the industry, however, were strongly opposed to that mandate.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has put out an alert warning brokerage firms that they need to better monitor the sale of high risk complex investments to retail investors. The regulator said that its analysis of 26,600 transactions of $1.25 billion of structured securities products revealed that there has been quite a number of times when the investments were sold to investors for whom they were not appropriate.
According to InvestmentNews, the Commission examined 10 branch offices of brokerage firms. The assessments took place from January 2011 through the end of 2012. In one firm, they discovered $96 million of structured-product sales that were made to conservative investors. At two other broker-dealers, the SEC discovered high concentrations of structure products in the accounts of older investors. One representative purportedly modified a customer’s investment goals without that person’s consent after a sale went through to make the complex product purchases appear justified.
Brokers are required to abide by suitability standards, which mandate that investment products that are sold meet each client’s risk tolerance and investment goals. The SEC said that in exams that were conducted, there were firms that appeared to have weak suitability controls.
The Commission wants broker-dealers to regard this alert as a wake up call so that they will take a closer look at their compliance programs. The regulator noted that while all the broker-dealers that were scrutinized had written procedures and policies for suitability, the controls were not consistently or properly implemented. In some instances, suitability controls differed among the different branches of a firm.
The SEC is charging Ireeco LLC and Ireeco Limited with serving as unregistered brokers for over 150 foreign investors. The two firms are accused of illegally brokering over $79M of investments by those who wanted to become U.S. residents under the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program.
The program offers a way for foreigners to invest money in a U.S. enterprise or a designated, private regional center in exchange for legal residency in this country. The SEC contends that the two brokerage firms went online to solicit foreign investors, promising to help them select a regional center. Instead, the firms allegedly directed most of them to the centers that paid commissions of approximately $35,000/investor once the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved a green card petition. The SEC said that participants invested $79 million in the regional centers.
The SEC said that Ireeco LLC and Ireeco Ltd. raised money for immigrant investment projects without being registered to legally operate as securities brokers. The two firms agreed to settle without denying or admitting to the findings.