FINRA alleges that over a two-year period, Jeffrey Dragon, a registered representative of Berthel Fisher & Co. Financial Services. Inc., generated more than $421,000 in concessions for himself and his firm. at the expense of his customers, by recommending and effecting a pattern of unsuitable short-term trading of unit investment trusts ( UITs ).
Specifically, between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014 (the ‘ UIT Period’ ) Dragon recommended to 12 customers – many of whom were seniors, unsophisticated investors, or both – that they liquidate UIT positions that they had held for only a few months, and which they had purchased on Dragon s recommendations, and then use the proceeds to purchase other UITs. Because each UIT purchased carried a new sales load, and because UITs are designed not to be actively traded, Dragon s recommendations were excessive and unsuitable.
Dragon’s recommendations to these customers were further unsuitable. in that he designed his recommendations to prevent his customers’ UIT purchases from qualifying for sales-charge discounts. Despite regularly recommending that customers purchase UITs in amounts that exceeded volume-discount “breakpoints” of $50,000 and $100.000. Dragon routinely structured their investments – by spreading the amounts over smaller purchases and multiple days – in order to avoid reaching those thresholds. By doing so. Dragon sought to increase his concessions at his customers’ expense.
Berthel allowed this activity to occur – and. in fact, profited from it – as a direct result of its inadequate system for supervising UIT trading. Throughout the UlT Period. Berthei’s only regular supervisory review of UIT recommendations and customer activity consisted of manual reviews of daily trade blotters that did not indicate either how long UIT positions had been held before liquidation or the source of funds used to purchase new UITs. Thus, Berthel’s supervisory system was not reasonably designed to prevent short-tenn and potentially excessive UIT trading.
Berthel’s supervisory system was also inadequate because it was not reasonably designed to prevent short-term and potentially excessive trading in mutual funds. As with UlTs. the firm’s supervisory system lacked any methods, reports, or other tools to identify mutual-fund switching or trading patterns indicative of other misconduct between January 1. 2013 and December 31, 2015 (the ‘ Mutual Fund Period’ ).
Likewise, Berthel’s supervisory system was not reasonably designed to censure that the firm’s UIT and mutual-fund customers received all sales-charge discounts to which they were entitled during the UIT Period and Mutual Fund Period, respectively. Instead. Berthel relied 2 on its registered representatives and its clearing firm to determine whether UIT and mutual-fund purchases should receive sales-charge discounts, and conducted no review or supension to determine i f those discounts were applied correctly.
This not only allowed Dragon s breakpoint-manipulation scheme to go unchecked, it also resulted in further injury to Berthel s customers: from 2010 through 2014, Berthel failed to detect that more than 2,700 of its customers’ UIT purchases did not receive applicable sales-charge discounts. As a result, Berthel customers paid excessive sales charges of approximately $667.000, nearly all of which was paid to Berthel and its registered representatives as dealer concessions.