June 23, 2016

Merrill Lynch to Pay $425M to the SEC and $5M to FINRA for Misusing Customer Funds and Misleading Investors About Structured Notes

Merrill Lynch will pay $415M to resolve civil charges accusing the firm of misusing customer funds and not safeguarding customer securities from creditor claims. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the firm violated the regulator's Customer Protection Rule by using customer funds inappropriately instead of depositing them in a reserve account.

Instead, said the SEC, Merrill Lynch took part in complex options trades that artificially lowered how much in customer funds needed to be in the reserve account. This liberated billions of dollars a week from ’09 to ’12. The firm used the funds for its own trades. If Merrill had failed with these trades there would have been a substantial shortfall in the reserve account.

Merrill Lynch, which is owned by Bank of America (BAC), has admitted wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

The SEC said that the firm violated the Customer Protection Rule when it didn’t abide by the requirement that customer securities that had been fully paid for be kept in lien-free accounts and protected from third parties claims in the event that Merrill Lynch were to collapse. Such a failure would have exposed customers to great risk and there would have been uncertainty as to whether they’d be able to get their securities back.
Also, contends the Commission, from ’09 to ’15, Merrill held up to $58B of customer securities a day in a clearing account that was subject to a general lien to be handled by its clearing bank.

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June 22, 2016

Securities Cases: Medical Capital Executive To Pay Almost $40M for Private Placement Fraud, Momentum Investment Partners Accused of Not Disclosing Fees, and First Mortgage Corp. Settles Mortgage Fraud Claims

Ex-Medical Capital Holdings COO Gets 10 Years in Prison
Joseph J. Lampariello, the ex-president and COO of Medical Capital Holdings, has been sentenced to 10 years and one month in prison for his involvement in a private placement fraud that became the Ponzi scam responsible for the shutdown of dozens of brokerage firms. Lampariello must also pay investors almost $40M in restitution.

Medical Capital Holdings, a medical receivables financing company, supervised funds that were supposed to buy account receivables from medical providers that were credited, provide money for general operating costs, and make loans that were secure. Instead, for almost a year, Lampariello misappropriated the money investors had given for MedCap deals, using the funds to pay earlier investors and himself.

Over 700 investors were bilked of close to $49M. Meantime, the independent brokerage firms that sold MedCap notes also suffered. They got in trouble over allegations that they did not conduct the proper due diligence on Medical Capital and other private placements that ended up being scams. A lot of broker-dealers had to close up shop because of the securities fraud cases brought by investors wanting their money back from the Medical Capital fraud.


Momentum Investment Partners Faces SEC Fraud Charges
Investment advisory firm Momentum Investment Partners , doing business as Avatar Investment Management, and principal Ronald Fernandes are charged with fraud. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission claims that the firm and Fernandes did not disclose to clients that they were charging them additional fees. Avatar is no longer in operation.

Continue reading "Securities Cases: Medical Capital Executive To Pay Almost $40M for Private Placement Fraud, Momentum Investment Partners Accused of Not Disclosing Fees, and First Mortgage Corp. Settles Mortgage Fraud Claims" »

June 21, 2016

Denver Broncos Quarterback Mark Sanchez and MLB Pitchers Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy Defrauded in $30M Scam

The Securities and Exchange Commission has gotten a court order to freeze the assets of investment adviser Ash Narayan. He is accused of bilking Denver Broncos quarterback Mark Sanchez, ex-Major League Baseball pitcher Roy Oswalt, and San Francisco Giants pitcher Jake Peavy, and other clients of millions of dollars in a Ponzi-like scam.

Also named in the case are The Ticket Reserve Inc., an online sports and entertainment ticketing business, its COO John A. Kaptrosky and CEO Richard Harmon. Narayan, who used to be managing director of Dallas-based RGT Capital Management, was on the ticket company’s board. He owned over 3 million shares of The Ticket Reserve Inc. stock and he was the primary person raising funds for the company.

According to the regulator, Narayan took over $33M from clients’ accounts and moved the funds to The Ticket Reserve. He allegedly did this without their knowledge or permission and he used unauthorized or forged signatures. Narayan also is accused of making Ponzi-like payments using newer investors’ money to pay earlier investors. Meantime, he was purportedly was paid almost $2M in concealed compensation.

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June 16, 2016

Securities Headlines: FINRA Enforcement Officials Say They Are Keeping Their Eyes on Variable Annuities, Massachusetts Goes Looking for Rogue Brokers, and Man is Accused of Scamming Women He Met Online

FINRA Takes a Closer Look at Variable Annuities
At a recent Insured Retirement Institute Conference, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. enforcement officials said that even though variable annuities are not on the regulator’s list of examination priorities for 2016 this doesn’t mean it isn’t scrutinizing them. FINRA Sr. VP/deputy enforcement chief Russ Ryan said that variable annuities often are involved in its cases.

It was just recently that FINRA charged MetLife (MET) $25M for making misrepresentations and omissions related to variable annuity sales. New products were marketed as less costly and better than the variable annuities that clients already owned when, in truth, said the regulator, the clients should have stayed with these older investments. The alleged misrepresentations and omissions were found in 72% of 35,500 applications for variable annuity replacements that were approved by MetLife.

FINRA said that training and supervision were a key factor in the case, which is what they are also seeing in other variable annuity cases. The regulator is also looking at L-share variable annuities, which offer greater liquidity and a shorter surrender-penalty period.

With a variable annuity contract, an insurer consents to pay the investor periodic payments either right away or in the future. The investor buys the contract with a single payment or a series of payments. The VA’s value will depend on performance and the investment options selected by the investor.


Massachusetts Targets Rogue Brokers
The Massachusetts Securities Division is going after rogue brokers. The regulator sent a letter to more than 240 firms that have a higher than average number of reps who have been reported for misconduct. The state says it wants the firms’ hiring information and is interested in learning about brokerage firms' hiring procedures and policies. The letter was issued to financial firms where over 15% of their current representatives have at least one current disclosure incident documented.

Continue reading "Securities Headlines: FINRA Enforcement Officials Say They Are Keeping Their Eyes on Variable Annuities, Massachusetts Goes Looking for Rogue Brokers, and Man is Accused of Scamming Women He Met Online" »

June 15, 2016

US Supreme Strikes Down Law That Would Have Let Puerto Rico Public Utilities Restructure Their Debt

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Puerto Rico law that would have let its public utilities restructure $20 billion of debt. The territory’s officials enacted the Recovery Act in 2014 in an attempt to help it deal with its $70 billion of debt. Puerto Rico’s large public utilities owe about $26 billion to bondholders and banks. It was their creditors that challenged the law in federal court.

Puerto Rico is not allowed to file for bankruptcy protection. The Commonwealth is excluded from Chapter 9, which is the section of the bankruptcy code that usually applies to local governments, including cities, public utilities, counties, and other branches that have become insolvent and need help. (Puerto Rico has tried to convince the U.S. congress to get rid of the 1984 rule that excluded it from Chapter 9. No reason has been provided for why it was deliberately left out.)

Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas reminded us that the federal bankruptcy code does not let lower government units and states enact their own bankruptcy laws. However, U.S. legislators are looking for ways to potentially help Puerto Rico.

A bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to help the territory deal with its debt crisis has gone to the Senate for consideration. If passed into law, the bill would establish a board to manage the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt and oversee the territory’s finances. The Commonwealth sure could use the help.

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June 13, 2016

Ex-NBA and NFL Players Win $819K Arbitration Award in FINRA Arbitration Case Against Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority arbitration panel has awarded former NBA basketball player Keyon Dooling and ex-NFL athlete John St. Clair $819,000 in damages in their securities case against Morgan Stanley (MS). The two men accused the firm of negligent supervision of a former broker whom they blame for their investment losses.

The rogue broker, Aaron Parthemer, has since been barred from the securities industry. It was Parthemer who recommended that the former professional athletes put money into two businesses. Dooling invested $700K in apparel company Global Village Concerns and Miami Beach night spot Club Play. St. Clair invested $200,000 in Global Village Concerns. According to the ex-pro athletes’ securities fraud lawyers, the two investments proved worthless.

Now, the FINRA arbitration panel says that Morgan Stanley must pay Dooling and his spouse over $608K while St. Clair and his wife are to get over $200K. Meantime, Morgan Stanley disagrees with the panel’s ruling, contending that that it was Parthemer who failed to let the firm know that he was engaged in external investment activities. This was the alleged reason that FINRA barred him from the industry.

For instance, Parthemer is accused of lending $400K to three clients without getting his firm’s consent, giving former employers Wells Fargo (WFC) and Morgan Stanley, as well as FINRA, false information, presenting private securities transactions that went undisclosed and involved clients that invested over $3M, running a nightclub, operating a marketing firm, and winning a contract to promote a tequila brand.

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June 10, 2016

U.S. House Passes Puerto Rico Debt Rescue Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed PROMESA, a bill to help Puerto Rico deal with its recession and its over $70 billion debt, in a landslide vote of 297-to-127. The island has been in financial trouble for some time now, with many of its residents leaving because the situation has gotten so bad. Already, Puerto Rico has defaulted three times in the last year on the debt payments that it owes.

PROMESA would establish an Oversight Board that will regulate the U.S. territory’s finances. The Oversight Board would be able to sell Puerto Rican government assets, let the island reduce the minimum wage for certain workers on a temporary basis, and decide whether to restructure the island’s debt. PROMESA is not a “bailout” of Puerto Rico as no taxpayer money would be used to pay off Puerto Rico’s debt and no federal funds would be committed under the bill.

Congress’s passage of PROMESA comes as the island is encountering new financial problems, including that the Commonwealth owes $2 billion on July 1 of this year. If the U.S. Senate were to pass PROMESA before then, however, Puerto Rico may not have to pay the full amount in July. The bill gives the Commonwealth a grace period through at least February 2017.

Under that “grace period” provision, Puerto Rico would be able to pay just interest on its debts and creditors wouldn't be allowed to go after the Commonwealth with lawsuits. The grace period would hopefully give the board time to devise a plan.

Even though a solution is clearly needed, there are those who oppose the measure, including some creditors, interest groups, and bondholders. Puerto Rico’s $7 billion debt is held by local residents, financial institutions, U.S. hedge funds, and mutual fund firms, which means that there are investors on the mainland who are also holding Puerto Rico debt.

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June 9, 2016

Oppenheimer to Pay $2.9M for Unsuitable Non-Traditional Exchange-Traded Fund Sales

FINRA is fining Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. (OPY) $2.2M for the sale of non-traditional exchange-traded funds, including inverse, leveraged, and inverse-leveraged ETFs, to retail customers without proper supervision and for suggesting them to clients even though they were not appropriate investments for them. The self-regulatory organization is also making the firm pay over $716,000 to the customers who were impacted.

FINRA said that even though Oppenheimer put into place policies barring representatives from both selling non-traditional ETFs to retail customers and executing non-traditional ETF purchases that were unsolicited for said customers unless they met certain requirements—including liquid assets greater than $50OK—the firm did not do a reasonable job of making sure that these policies were properly enforced. (The firm had put them into effect after FINRA issued a notice advising brokerage firms of the risks involved in non-traditional ETFs.) Because of this, Oppenheimer continued to market non-traditional ETFs to retail customers and effect transactions that were unsolicited for those who failed to meet the requirements.

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June 8, 2016

Morgan Stanley and E*Trade Securities Face Penalties for Inadequate Customer Information Protection

The Securities and Exchange Commission says that Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC (MS) will pay a $1M penalty to resolve charges involving its purported failure to protect customer data. Some of this information was hacked and violators attempted to sell the data online.

According to the regulator, the firm did not put into place written policies and procedures that were designed in a manner reasonable enough to protect customer information. Because of this, said the SEC, from ’11 to ’14, former Morgan Stanley employee Galen J. Marsh was able to access without permission information regarding approximately 730,000 accounts and move them to his own server. This made it possible for third parties to access and hack the information from there.

The Commission said that Morgan Stanley had two internal portals that made it possible for employees such as Marsh to access confidential customer account information and it was for these internal applications that the firm lacked the needed authorization modules that would have restricted which employees could see this information. This deficiency existed for over a decade.

It was just last week that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said that it was censuring and fining E*Trade Securities LLC for supervisory violations related to customer order information protection and for not performing sufficient review of the quality of customer order executions. As a firm that offers online services for securities investing and trading to retail customers, E*Trade is supposed to evaluate the competing markets that it routes customer orders to, including exchange and non-exchange market centers. Firms such as E*Trade are also supposed to conduct periodic and stringent reviews of the quality of customer order executions to see if there are any differences among the markets, which is why the firm set up a Best Execution Committee to do this job.

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June 4, 2016

SEC & Fraud Cases: Ponzi Scam Targeting Middle Class Investors is Stopped, NY-Based Forex Trader is Accused of Bilking Ex-Classmates, Family, and Friends, and NC Investment Adviser is Sued Over $11.5M Real Estate-Related Scheme

SEC Stops Ponzi Scam Involving Pre-IPO Stocks and Middle Class Investors
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is charging Jaswant Gill and Javier Rios with fraud. The regulator claims that the two men and their investment firm, JSG Capital Investments, targeted middle-class investors through a Ponzi scam in which they touted purportedly huge returns through pro-IPO stock in renowned companies such as Airbnb, Alibaba, and Uber.

Gill and Rios are accused of pocketing at least $2.8M in investor money for their own lavish spending instead of investing the money in the pre-IPO shares. Funds of new investors were used to pay “returns” to earlier investors.

Gill allegedly touted fake credentials. He, Rios, and their firm are not registered with the Commission or with a state regulator.

The SEC said that in total the two investment advisers raised $10M through their company and related entities. They are said to have promised these retail investors access to investment opportunities that were typically only available to “one-percenters.” They also guaranteed yearly returns as high as 60%.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California has filed a parallel criminal case against Rios and Gill.


Trader Accused of Bilking Friends and Family of Millions of Dollars
The SEC is suing Haena Park for allegedly defrauding friends, her ex-Harvard classmates, family members, and other individuals of millions of dollars. Park is accused of using investor funds and making misrepresentations about her investment history, as well about the profits the investments were supposed to have made.

Since 2012, Park has raised at least $14M from over 30 investors, sustaining $16M in trading losses in the process.

Continue reading "SEC & Fraud Cases: Ponzi Scam Targeting Middle Class Investors is Stopped, NY-Based Forex Trader is Accused of Bilking Ex-Classmates, Family, and Friends, and NC Investment Adviser is Sued Over $11.5M Real Estate-Related Scheme" »

June 3, 2016

Securities Cases: Stephens Inc. to Pay $900K Fine, FINRA Bans Ex-Wells Fargo Broker, And Former State Street Executive is Accused of Charging Hidden Fees

SEC Files Fraud Charges Against Former State Street Executive
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is filing fraud charges against ex-State Street Corp. (STT) executive Ross McClellan. According to the regulator, McLellan was one of a number of people who purposely charged hidden markups on certain transactions to customers, making the bank $20M in extra revenue.

Addressing the charges, McLellan’s lawyer claims that his client did not commit any securities law violations and that all banks charge client markups on bond transactions to make money. The attorney also noted that it was State Street and not the bank that profited from the charges.

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged McLellan with securities fraud, conspiracy, and wire fraud.

Ex-Wells Fargo Broker to Be Barred
Christopher John Pierce, a former Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) broker, will be barred from working with any FINRA-registered firm and associating with any member of the self-regulatory organization. Pierce agreed to the bar after he was accused of stealing money from the accounts of banking customers.

Continue reading "Securities Cases: Stephens Inc. to Pay $900K Fine, FINRA Bans Ex-Wells Fargo Broker, And Former State Street Executive is Accused of Charging Hidden Fees" »

June 1, 2016

Proposed Rule Would Let Consumers Sue Banks

A new rule proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would let consumers sue banks over a variety of financial products, including bank accounts, private student loans, money-transfer services, installment loans, payday loans, prepaid cards, and credit cards, and certain types of loans. The proposed rule would also prohibit arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts, again giving more power to consumers.

The CFPB wants to prevent financial companies from employing mandatory arbitration clauses so as to inhibit class action securities cases involving significant quantities of plaintiffs. However, they would still be allowed to obligate consumers to resolve individual disagreements in arbitration. Companies that decide to include arbitration clauses in their contracts would have to notify the CFBP about the specifics of cases, including any awards and claims.


The CFPB said that according to a study it conducted in 2015, arbitration clauses were found in “hundreds of millions of consumer contracts” used by credit card users, private student loan lenders, banks taking insured deposits, as well as in prepaid card agreements and payday loan contracts in certain states.

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