Tag Archives: securities fraud

Morgan Stanley $13 Mil. UIT Sanctions

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today, September 25, 2017, that it has sanctioned Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC approximately $13 million for UIT violations by its advisors and for failing to supervise its advisors’ short-term trades of unit investment trusts (UITs).

A UIT is an investment vehicle similar to a mutual fund but with some key differences.  It is an investment company that offers units in a portfolio of securities; however, unlike a mutual fund, it terminates on a specific maturity date. UITs impose a variety of charges, including a deferred sales charge and a creation and development fee, that can total approximately 3.95 percent for a typical 24-month UIT. This can be a significant cost.  A registered representative, or advisor, who repeatedly recommends that a customer sell a UIT position before the maturity date and then “rolls over” those funds into a new UIT, an action that can also be described as “churning,” causes the customer to incur increased and unnecessary sale charges over time.

FINRA found such actions in thousands of customer accounts. FINRA further found that Morgan Stanley failed to adequately supervise advisor sales of UITs by providing insufficient guidance to supervisors regarding how they should review such transactions to detect improper short-term UIT trading, failing to implement an adequate system to detect and deter such abuse, and failing to provide for supervisory review of rollovers prior to execution. Morgan Stanley also failed to conduct training for advisors specific to these UIT issues.

Susan Schroeder of FINRA said, “Due to the long-term nature of UITs, their structure, and upfront costs, short-term trading of UITs may be improper and raises suitability concerns. Firms must adequately supervise representatives’ sales of UITs –including providing sufficient training –and have in place a system to detect potentially unsuitable short-term UIT rollovers.”

In assessing sanctions, FINRA has recognized Morgan Stanley’s cooperation in having initiated a firmwide investigation that included, among other things, interviewing more than 65 firm personnel and the retention of an outside consultant to conduct a statistical analysis of UIT rollovers at the firm; identified customers affected and establishing a plan to provide remediation to those customers; and provided substantial assistance to FINRA in its investigation.

Investors of Paul Vincent Blum

If you suffered losses with Paul Vincent Blum, most recently a financial advisor with RBC, please call 1-866-817-0201.

In 2017, FINRA was conducting an investigation of Blum in connection with customer complaints and arbitration claims alleging, among other things, unsuitable trading. To date, Blum has approximately 23 customer complaints.  Many of the complaints concern his recommendation of energy sector investments to investors not wishing to speculate or unwilling to high levels of risk known to exist in the energy sector.  Many of these complaints were settled by Blum’s employers, including RBC.  He has also been accused of making misrepresentations concerning bonds, including the taxable nature of certain bonds.

On July 21,2017, FINRA staff sent Blum’s counsel a written request for on-the-record testimony pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210. As stated in Blum’s counsel’s email to FINRA of July 25,2017, Blum aclmowledges that he received FINRA’s request and will not appear for on-the-record testimony in front of FINRA. FINRA requires that persons subject to FINRA’s jurisdiction provide information, documents and testimony as part of a FINRA investigation.

As a result of the failure to cooperate in the regulatory investigation of FINRA, Blum has been barred from association with any FINRA member, which would include any and all securities brokerages in the United States.

Annuity Losses with Roger Zullo

LPLIf you suffered investment losses or stuck in a variable annuity, or other investment losses, as a result of Roger Zullo, formerly of LPL Financial, please call 1-866-817-0201.

On April 4, 2017, Zullo entered a Consent Order, a settlement, with the Massachusetts Securities Division resolving charges made in an administrative complaint by the state against Zullo and LPL.

The complaint alleged that Zullo, under the oversight of LPL, defrauded their clients, falsified client financial suitability profiles, and sold his customers unsuitable variable annuities. Pursuant to the Consent Order, without admitting or denying any allegations of fact or violations o flaw, he consented to a permanent bar from the securities industry in Massachusetts, a $40,000 administrative fine, and disgorgement of $1,875,348. Payment for disgorgement was waived due to Zullo’s circumstances, however, this does not preclude investors from retaining private attorneys to seek this recovery from LPL.

The action stems largely from variable annuity sales.  Zullo, allegedly, recommended variable annuities to elderly individuals.  Investment professionals have a legal duty to only recommend suitable investments.  Variable annuities are inherently unsuitable for seniors.  Not only do they lock-up the funds at a time when people need access to their funds, the investments pay the broker a very high commission.  This commission is for the sale of many aspects of the variable annuity that senior investors do not need.  These include tax deferral and life insurance.  When a broker makes a heightened commission for the sale of things that are unneeded, the broker puts his interests ahead of the investors, and that constitutes a form of fraud known as the sale of “unsuitable investments.”

Zullo first became registered with FINRA as an IR in September 1998. He maintained that registration through consecutive associations with two member firms between September 1988 and August 2004. From August 2004 through December 2016, he was registered as an Investment Representative with LPL.

In November 2004, Zullo also became registered as IP through his association with the Firm. Zullo maintained those registrations through his association with the Firm until December 2016. Zullo worked for the Firm as a broker-dealer agent and investment adviser representative in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

On January 10,2017, FINRA sent a request for information and documents pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210 to Zullo with a response date of January 24, 2017. Zullo, through his counsel, requested two extensions to the January 10 request. Pursuant to these requests, FINRA extended the response date to March 1,2017.

Zullo did not provide any documents or information to FINRA in response to the January 10 request. On March 2,2017, FINRA sent a second request for documents and information pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210 to Zullo with a response date of March 16, 2017. Zullo did not provide any documents or information to FINRA in response to the March 2 request.

The resulting FINRA punishment is a permanent bar from the securities industry.

Attention Investors of Kyle P. Harrington

Investors of Kyle Patrick Harrington may have recourse for their losses.  Please call 1-866-817-0201 for a free and confidential consultation.

Harrington has been alleged to have committed several forms of deceit in his dealings with investors and regulators in the last eight years.  This includes actions while employed at National Securities (NSC), Bannockburn Partners, Matrix Captial, First Allied, and Robert B. Ausdall.  He is currently a representative of Aurora Capital and also operates under the name of Harrington Capital Management.  Responsibility for the actions of Harrington fall not just on Harrington, but also on his employers.

The types of deceit alleged over the years include churning, creating of falsified documents, theft of investor funds, unsuitable investments, excessive trading, unauthorized purchases made in investor accounts, and other forms of misrepresentations and fraud.

Of all the allegations of deceit, the most recent is a civil suit filed by FINRA.   The FINRA suit involves a series of alleged deceptions by Kyle Harrington with the help of his assistant, Linda Milberger, to conceal Harrington’s alleged theft of customer funds and private securities transactions, securities transactions done outside of his firms’ fraud monitoring to put his investors in questionable investments.

Harrington is also alleged to have created false documents to submit to FINRA to conceal his misconduct not just from his employers, but also from regulators. For her part, Milberger falsified wire request forms which allowed Harrington’s conversion of customer funds, submitted those falsified wire request forms to her firm and another brokerage as if they were authentic records, and knowingly assisted Harrington in providing an altered bank statement to regulators.

In particular, in August 2012, Harrington convinced an investor to authorize a wire transfer to Harrington’s registered investment advisor firm for a purported investment. In fact, after the investor’s funds were wired to Harrington’s business checking account, Harrington took the investor’s funds without her knowledge or consent, and used it to pay his own business expenses.

When difficulties arose completing the $20,000 wire transfer from the investor’s account in August 2012, Harrington’s assistant, Milberger, altered the wire request form that the investor had signed without the investor’s knowledge or consent, on at least two occasions, in order to transfer all available cash out ofLD’s account to Harrington. Milberger submitted the altered wire request forms to her own firm and another broker dealer as iftheywere authentic, thereby causing those firms to maintain inaccurate books and records regarding the wire transfer.

In August 2012 and early 2013, Harrington also engaged in a series of private securities transactions with multiple individuals through which he sold over 300,000 shares of restricted stock he had purportedly received as compensation from a company named Islet Sciences, Inc. for approximately $276,000. Harrington failed to disclose these transactions, including his role as seller of the securities, to his employing firm or seek its prior approval of them.

Harrington not only failed to disclose his private securities transactions in Islet but he actively attempted to conceal them. Specifically, in July 2014, during a firm audit of his business, Harrington submitted falsified records to his firm mischaracterizing payments he had received for the sale of his Islet stock.

Additionally, Harrington has been the subject of nine actual or threatened investor lawsuits, multiple other regulatory investigations and employment terminations.  This information is contained in the CRD of Harrington.

Attention Investors of Jeffrey Dragon

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 ).

Invest photo 2Specifically, 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.

Mark Holt Loss Recovery

Mark Holt is a former stock broker currently serving a prison sentence for stealing the funds of his investors and sending false account documents.  The scheme victimized investors in Minnesota and likely elsewhere.  Due to the incarceration, investors seeking recovery will likely need to pursue Holt’s former employers by means of FINRA arbitration for loss recovery.

From August 2005 to February 2007, Holt was a registered representative of Geneos Wealth Management, Inc., which is both a securities brokerage and investment adviser. From February 2007 to November 2013, Holt was a registered representative of Harbour Investments, Inc., which is also a dually registered entity. Holt, 47 years old, is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wisconsin.

guy in handcuffsDetails of the SEC action can be found in its release.

On August 14, 2014, Holt was sentenced to a prison term of 120 months followed by three years of supervised release and ordered to make restitution in the amount of $2,940,982.75.  The chances of these payments being made is not great considering Holt could be incarcerated for much of the next ten years.

The allegations are that from about September 2005 through Jan. 12, 2014, Holt “knowingly caused an email communication to be transmitted in interstate commerce via servers in Texas to a client in Minnesota that would give the client access to false account statements.”

The SEC and the criminal documents state that Holt “misappropriated [investor] funds by depositing client checks into a bank account he controlled and using these funds to pay for personal and business expenses. In furtherance of his scheme, Holt lulled his clients into believing that he had purchased various investments for them by sending fraudulent Morningstar client summaries and [...] a web-based portal, that displayed fraudulent account balances.”

“Holt made monthly payments to his clients that were intended to appear as interest or annuity payments,” in a classic Ponzi-type scheme.

Anne Marie Comcowich Loss Recovery

Anne Marie Comcowich, a Scranton, Pennsylvania area securities broker, has agreed to a sanction to resolve a FINRA investigation.  The underlying investigation concerned the unauthorized withdraw of funds, theft, from investor accounts.  Ms. Comcowich was previously with Prudential.

In 2017, while being investigated in connection with unauthorized withdrawals, Comcowich, through her lawyer, informed FINRA staff that she would not produce information and documents requested pursuant to FINRA Rule 8210. Comcowich thereby violated FINRA Rules 8210 and 2010.

By failing to participate in the regulatory action, Comcowhich received a bar from FINRA which Bull pictureprohibits her from working with any other securities brokerage.

Details of the FINRA action can be found in its AWC.  In the AWC, Comcowich neither admits nor denies the allegations.

Comcowich was suspected of processing 13 unauthorized withdrawals from customer accounts. In an email and follow up telephone call with FINRA staff on April 3, 2017, and by this agreement, Comcowich acknowledges that she received FINRA’s requests and will not produce the information and documents requested.  The actions of Comcowich are in violation FINRA Rule 2010 provides that “[a] member in the conduct of its business shall observe high standards of commercial honor and just and equitable principles of trade.” A violation of FINRA Rule 8210 is also a violation of FINRA Rule 2010.

Jeffrey Pederson is an attorney who has represented investors similarly victimized.  A limited number of attorneys have such experience in front of FINRA, where such cases would need to be brought.  Please call for a free and confidential consultation.

 

Invement losses with John Blakezuniga

John Blakezuniga, formerly of Vanguard Capital, recently entered into a settlement agreement with FINRA regulators, where he agreed to a fine but did not admit or deny fault, concerning alleged fraudulent activity in the portfolios of his investors.  Blakezuniga sometimes goes by the name of John Blake, sometimes by the name John Zuniga, and sometimes by John Blake-Zuniga.

Jeffrey Pederson, PC helps investors recover such losses.  For a free and confidential consultation with a lawyer, please call 1-866-817-0201.

As identified in the FINRA regulatory settlement, referred to as an AWC, between 2007 and 2013, Blakezuniga borrowed $775,000 (which he has not fully repaid) from two firm customers Invest photo 2in violation of the firm’s policy. As a result, Blakezuniga violated NASD Rules 2370 and 21 10 and FINRA Rules 3240 and 2010.

Blakezuniga separately violated FINRA Rule 2010 by falsely answering “no” to a question on the firm’s 2013 annual compliance questionnaire that asked if he had ever borrowed money from a customer.

In addition, from 2010 to 2014, Blakezuniga recommended approximately 1,280 transactions in inverse and inverse leveragedExchange Traded Funds (“nontraditional ETFs”) in 85 customer accounts without a reasonable basis for the recommendations. By doing so, Blakezuniga violated NASD Rule 2310 and FINRA Rules 2111 and 2010.

Borrowing funds from an investor/customer is fraudulent because of the discrepancy in the bargaining power between broker and investor.  The prohibition is codified in NASD and FINRA rules.  NASD Rule 2370 and FINRA Rule 3240′ generally prohibit registered representatives from borrowing money from any customer subject to limited exceptions and in accordance with firm procedures.

Likewise, lacking a reasonable basis for the recommendation of an investment is violative. NASD Rule 2310 and FINRA Rule 21113 require registered representatives to have reasonable grounds for believing that a recommendation is suitable for a customer based upon the customer’s disclosed security holdings and financial situation and needs. A violation ofthese rules also constitutes a violation of FINRA Rule 2010.

Investment Professionals, Inc. (IPI)

If you have suffered investment losses with Investment Professionals, Inc. (IPI) and believe that it may be due to mismanagement, please call 1-866-817-0201 for a free and confidential attorney consultation.

Invest photo 2IPI has recently agreed to pay a fine to the Massachusetts Attorney General for violations of the suitability rule.  This rule requires a financial adviser to not recommend investments that are of a higher risk than an investor either wants or is financially able to take.  The allegations were that IPI was recommending risky investments to seniors who could not afford to take such risks. Though the action was brought by Massachusetts, the systemic nature is a good indication that such violations are occurring in other states as well.

IPI’s business model is based upon partnering with community banks so that the bank’s existing depository customers can be used to provide revenue to IPI and additional revenue to the bank. Though IPI is based in San Antonio, Texas, it engages in such partnerships around the country.

Networking agreements between IPI and their bank partners reveal a referral program where bank employees of its partner banks refer bank customers to IPI financial advisers for monetary incentives. In exchange for allowing IPI representatives convenient access to bank customers, IPI’ s bank partners receive “rent,” or commonly referred as a kickback, which is a percentage of the sales that IPI representatives earn from selling products at bank branches.

While IPI and their bank partners profit from their networking arrangements, the pervasive sales culture emphasizing and rewarding the volume of production at the expense of compliance with policies and procedures, suitability, and oversight means that certain senior citizen bank customers have been harmed .

As identified in the regulatory complaint, IPI has partnered with the following. banks and credit union in Massachusetts: Eastern Bank, Mutual Bank, East Boston Savings Bank, Edgartown National Bank, The Cooperative Bank, and Homefield Credit Union.  Between January 2014 and June 2016, the top ten IPI representatives working out of Massachusetts community banks received approximately 2,208 customer referals. Approximately forty-five percent ( 45%) of these bank referrals to IPI financial were referrals of semor citizens, those individuals aged 65 or older. Approximately fourteen percent (14 %) of those referred invested in market-linked certificates of deposit (“MLCDs”) and approximately thirty-nine percent (39%) invested in annuities. Eastern Bank, is IPI’s largest partner in Massachusetts. Eight of the top ten highest producing IPI representatives in the stat work at Eastern Bank branches.

IPI’s aggressive sales contests exist against a backdrop of lax supervision from offices located in Texas and Kentucky that management personal at IPI identified as “not adequate.” Although IPI’s own policies and procedures prohibit “activities that are designed to reward sales for a particular financial product or family of products” and prohibit activities that “would only serve as a luxury” to representatives, in 2016 IPI rewarded the top ten percent of the previous year’s highest-producing representatives with a trip to Turks and Caicos. In 2015, IPI held a sales contest approved by IPI’ s President and CEO whereby representatives who achieved sales of products up to $150,000.  This served as motivation to put seniors in inappropriate investments.

Kris Etter of IMS Securities

If you have suffered investment losses with Kris Etter of IMS Securities, particularly if you suffered losses in UDF, please call 1-866-817-0201 for a free consultation with an attorney.  We have suit filed against IMS and are currently investigating whether other claims may exist.

It is believed that Etter had an undisclosed conflict of interest in his recommendations of UDF.  Upon information and belief, Mr. Kris Etter sold a substantial amount of UDF to his clients and is the son of Todd Etter.  Todd Etter is the Chairman of UDF IV, one of the top officers of the company.  Mr. Todd Etter also serves as Chairman of the general partner of UDF I and UDF II and Executive Vice President of the general partner of UDF III.  This creates a substantial conflict of interest in UDF recommendations by Kris Etter.

Kris Etter and IMS also failed to properly investigate UDF before recommending it, likely because of the Etter conflict and the heightened commission paid by UDF.  IMS is one of the top four leading sellers of UDF IV in the United States.

The bottom fell out for UDF when it was revealed in December 2015 to be a Ponzi scheme. The offices were raided by the FBI, received a Wells notice, unable to release quarterly reports and was ultimately delisted for a time. Reasonable investigation into the investment of other financial firms revealed that the illegitimacy of the investment. Had IMS done sufficient due diligence it would have likewise discovered that the investment was not suitable for any investor. Instead, IMS and Etter turned a blind eye to the problems of UDF and instead focused on the profits that it was receiving from this high commission product.

The individual ultimately in charge of all IMS offices is the CEO of IMS, Jackie Wadsworth.  Ms. Wadsworth has seven customer complaints naming her for insufficient supervision of representatives under her oversight. These complaints largely concern the inappropriate recommendation by her representatives of unsuitable variable annuity and REIT investments, just like the investments sold clients of Kris Etter and IMS.

As reported in Investmentnews.com in August 2016, the balance sheet of IMS is tilted heavily toward high-commission products like variable annuities and non-traded REITs. Approximately 86% of its revenue of IMS in 2015 came from commissions from such products.