Articles Posted in Financial Firms

A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel says that UBS Financial Services (UBS) must pay $18.6 million to customers Rafael Vizcarrondo and Mercedes Imbert De Jesus for their losses from investing in Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds.  The two investors, both UBS clients, accused the broker-dealer of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and other securities violations. They claim that UBS placed their money in unsuitable investments and did not properly supervise the broker who worked with them. As part of the award, Impert De Jesus and Vizcarrondo will receive $12.7 million in compensatory damages, $2.5 million of interest, $3.2 million in legal fees and $163,000 in expert witness fees.

Vizcarrondo is a prominent lawyer in Puerto Rico. His legal team said that UBS had attempted to portray him as a “sophisticated” investor, someone who should have known what he was getting involved in when he invested in the territory’s bonds.  The firm described Vizcarrondo as having been “fully informed” when he decided to concentrate his investments in UBS’s Puerto Rico closed-end funds. However, as Vizcarrondo’s attorney noted, not all professionals are “sophisticated investors.” Based on its decision, the FINRA arbitration panel obviously agreed with the claimant.

This is the largest FINRA arbitration award issued over Puerto Rico bond funds to date. There are over a thousand cases still pending. These claims were brought by investors seeking to recover the financial losses they suffered from investing in the island’s beleaguered securities. Although a number of firms, including Banco Santander (SAN), Banco Popular, Merrill Lynch and others have been named in Puerto Rico bond and closed-end bond fraud claims, UBS and affiliate UBS Financial Services Inc. of Puerto Rico (UBS-PR) have been the largest target of these claims. In fact, the TheStreet.com reports that on November 2, UBS AG, the parent company of UBS and UBS-PR, notified the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a filing that about $1.9 billion in Puerto Rico municipal bond funds and closed-end fund claims have been brought against it. The firm has already paid out $740 million to claimants.

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The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”)  has fined Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc (“Merrill Lynch”) $6.25 million and imposed a restitution penalty of $780,000 over Merrill Lynch’s inadequate supervision of its customers that employed leverage in brokerage accounts, as well as its failure to supervise the way that these customers were able use the proceeds from their loan managed accounts (“LMAs”). LMAs are credit lines that let customers use the securities in their brokerage accounts as collateral in order to borrow funds from a bank affiliate.  However, these LMAs are not supposed to be used to purchase additional securities.

The $780,000 will go to customers that invested in Puerto Rico municipal bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds. By settling Merrill Lynch is not admitting or denying FINRA’s findings.

According to FINRA, Merrill Lynch did not have these adequate procedures and supervisory systems at issue in place from 1/2010 through 11/2014. FINRA found that even though Merrill Lynch’s policy and non-purpose LMA agreements barred customers from using LMA proceeds to buy different kinds of securities, there were thousands of times during the relevant period that, within two weeks of getting LMA proceeds, Merrill Lynch brokerage accounts collectively purchased hundreds of millions of dollars of securities. Merrill Lynch also set up over 121,000 LMAs, with Bank of America (“BAC”) extending over $85 Billion in aggregate credit. FINRA said that all of this was able to happen because the firm’s supervisory procedures and systems were inadequate.

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A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) panel is ordering UBS Financial Services, Inc. (“UBS”) to pay Puerto Rico residents over $700,000 in damages.  The FINRA panel ordered UBS to pay $549,000 in compensatory damages to a defunct car rental business belonging to Luis Vega, as well as over $165,000 to Teresa Rosas, who is Vega’s former wife. The firm must also pay over $100,000 in costs and hearing session fees.

Vega and Rosas filed their case against UBS accusing the brokerage firm of securities fraud, negligence, recklessness, and deceit. Vega, 87, invested almost $8 million through his Condado Motors with UBS broker Jose Chaves between ’06 and ’11. During that time, Chaves invested approximately 95% of the money in three of UBS’s Puerto Rico close-end funds, even taking out loans to cover some of the costs. The couple’s lawyer claims that Chavez did not disclose any risks involved other than what was noted in the funds’ prospectus.  Additionally, Rosas bought over 17,000 shares of the UBS Puerto Rico Fixed Income Fund III.

The couple saw their investments lose the bulk of their value when the prices for the Puerto Rico bonds and Puerto Rico closed-end funds dropped in 2013. According to their lawyer, Condado Motors lost $3.9 million in value, as well as $823,650 in net out-of-pocket losses, during 2013. The couple said that their financial problems played a part in their decision to get a divorce.

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The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority says that Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY) must pay $3.4M in sanctions. According to the regulator, for eight years the firm was about four years late when submitting 365 filings about disciplinary actions that it brought against its brokers and in arbitration and litigation settlements. FINRA is also accusing Oppenheimer of not giving seven claimants the documentation they needed in their arbitration against Mark Hotton, an ex-registered representative, and of overcharging 825 customers more than $1M collectively for mutual fund shares over a six-year period.

The self-regulatory organization claims that the late filings to FINRA took place between 2008 and 2016 and that Oppenheimer failed to provide claimants the documentation related to the Mark Hotton allegations between 2010 and 2013. The failure to apply the appropriate fee waiver discount for mutual fund shares purportedly occurred between 2009 and 2015.

Already, Oppenheimer has paid over $6M to settle customer disputes alleging inadequate supervision of Hotton and another $1.25M to 22 customers who did not file arbitration cases but suffered losses, too. Oppenheimer also was ordered to pay a $2.5M fine to FINRA last year over the Hotton claims. The former broker, whom FINRA permanently barred from the securities industry three years ago, was sentenced sentenced to 11 years in prison for stealing client monies and excessively trading their brokerage accounts.

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Ex-Newbridge Securities Broker Involved in $131M Fraud Pleads Guilty 
Gerald Cocuzzo, has pleaded guilty to securities fraud related to his involvement in a $131M market manipulation scam involving Forcefield Energy Inc. (FNRG). According to the U.S. Justice Department, between 1/2009 and 4/2015, Cocuzzo and others sought to bilk investors in the publicly traded company that globally distributes and provides LED lighting products. They did this by artificially manipulating the volume and price of the shares that were traded.

Meantime, Cocuzzo received kickbacks for buying Forcefield stock in his clients’ brokerage accounts. He did not tell the customers that he was receiving these payments. Instead, he and several others sought to hide their involvement.

Newbridge Securities fired Cocuzzo earlier this year following the federal indictment. Before working at Newbridge, he was registered with IAA Financial, previously called CBG Financial Group Inc.

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A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel has ordered UBS Financial Services (UBS) to pay Ana Elisa Ciordia-Robles almost $1 million, including  $751,000 in compensatory damages and additional sums for legal fees and costs. Ciordia-Robles accused UBS of negligent supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, breach of contract, and violations of the Puerto Rico Uniform Securities Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b-5, and the Securities Exchange Act’s Sections 10(b). More specifically, Ciordia-Robles claimed she sustained losses from investing in UBS Puerto Rico (UBS-PR) closed-end bond funds.

When Puerto Rico muni bonds dropped in value in 2013, many investors on the island and in the mainland sustained huge investment losses. In the last few years, UBS and UBS-PR       have been the subject of thousands of customer complaints over their sale of Puerto Rico municipal bond and proprietary bond funds. Claimants are alleging that these investments were unsuitable, that high concentrations of these investments were recommended, and that UBS never apprised them of the risks involved in the closed-end bond funds that they were sold. Many of these investors have since realized that their portfolios were never equipped to handle these risks.

It was just last  year that UBS consented to pay about $34 million to US regulators to settle allegations related to its supervision of the sale of the Puerto Rico bond funds and use of leverage against those closed-end funds. UBS has already settled a number civil claims brought by investors through FINRA arbitration.  At Shepherd Smith Edwards and Kantas, LTD LLP our securities lawyers have been working hard to help quite a number of these investors  recoup these losses.

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The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has barred John Leo Valentine from working in the financial services industry, but he can re-apply after two years. The adviser is the founder and president of Valentine Capital Asset Management.
According to the regulator, Valentine did not disclose to clients that he had certain conflicts of interest related to a commodities fund in which they invested.  The SEC contends that from ’07 to late ’11, Valentine recommended that clients, who were mostly retirees, purchase shares of Bridgeton Global Directional Fund, which invested in commodity futures contracts. After Valentine could no longer make commissions from the managed futures fund, he purportedly advised the investors to put their money in Valt, which was a commodities fund he created that allowed him to earn compensation.
However, said the SEC, Valentine did not tell clients that he had a financial incentive to recommend Valt instead of Bridgeton. After just a few months in operation, Valt’s clearing broker and custodian filed for bankruptcy related to a fraud involving the broker’s CEO, and Valt stopped almost all trading activity. In addition to the industry bar, Valentine must pay $140K in penalties.

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Ex-UBS Broker is Accused of Inflating Customer’s Account 
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has barred Jeffrey Hamilton Howell from the broker-dealer industry. The former broker is accused of giving  a customer bogus weekly account statements that overvalued an account by up to $3M. The alleged misconduct is said to have occurred between 9/2008 and 11/2014.
According to FINRA, Howell sent the customer over 300 Stock Tracking Reports that misstated the client’s portfolio in amounts ranging from $289K to approximately $3M. He purportedly used his personal e-mail to send the customer some of the fake reports. This left UBS with records and books that were not accurate.

 SEC Charges Hawaii-Based Investment Adviser for Misleading Clients and Cherry Picking
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has filed civil charges against Oracle Investment Research, which is based in Hawaii, and its owner Laurence I. Balter. The regulator claims that the investment adviser cherry picked trades that were profitable for his own accounts. He is also accused is  misleading clients, including senior citizens, about the risks involved in the investments he recommended, as well as about the fees they would be charged.
 
According to the SEC Enforcement Division, Balter and Oracle Investment Research bought options and equities in an omnibus account but waited to distribute the trades until their execution. Then, he would allegedly move the profitable trades into his accounts and the unprofitable ones to the accounts of clients. 
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