A Ponzi Scheme is a type of investment fraud that pays purported “returns” to current investors from proceeds received from new investors, rather than through genuine investments. Once the fraudster stops receiving new money or investors request too much of their money back, the Ponzi Scheme falls apart. The term for Ponzi Scheme is from a famous 1920s con man, Charles Ponzi who redistributed investor funds for international reply coupons to himself and other investors. More recently, thousands of investors, many of whom were elderly lost their money in a billion-dollar Ponzi Scheme perpetrated by the Robert Shapiro Woodbridge Group. Not all Ponzi Schemes are as large and notorious as that committed by Bernie Madoff. Many more Ponzi Schemes happen on a much smaller basis and go undetected.

Malecki Law has handled numerous Ponzi cases: McGinn Smith, Robert Van Zandt, Hector May, Illume, and Steven Pagartanis, just to name a few. We are available to review your situation at no cost. Catching these things early inures to your benefit. Investors can fight to recoup their losses from a Ponzi Scheme committed under a FINRA registered firm through arbitration.

Our securities fraud law team aims to equip investors with the knowledge to spot not only Ponzi Schemes but other fraudulent investment opportunities as well. Everyone should be aware of the following signs that could indicate a Ponzi Scheme.

Arbitration is a formal alternative to courtroom litigation for resolving issues with neutral third party “arbitrators” issuing a binding decision after the litigants present their facts and argument. Compared to the usual courtroom procedures, arbitration is a faster, affordable and less formal legal proceeding.  FINRA, a self-regulatory-agency for the securities industry, controls the largest, most prominent arbitration forum for securities disputes. A full FINRA arbitration proceeding from initiation through hearing can take on average 16 months, but cases often are settled before the end. Sick or elderly claimants may request an expedited arbitration process within nine months.

There is a wide range of reasons that investors might want to make a legal claim against their broker-dealer and broker firm. When opening an account with brokerage firms, investors sign a contract that often contains a clause that makes handling disputes through FINRA arbitration mandatory. Notably, investors are bound to arbitrate their securities claim after the Supreme Court upheld binding arbitration provisions in Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon. FINRA registered broker-dealers, and registered representatives are similarly obligated to handle disputes arising through their employment in FINRA arbitration.

The FINRA arbitration process commences when the plaintiff, known as the claimant, submits a statement of claim, outlining the case’s relevant facts, dates, names of involved parties, type of relief requested and name of accused parties. The statement of claim must be filed within the allotted time, which is within six years after the dispute. Compared with a courtroom complaint, a statement of claim is less formal and usually a more detailed account of the background story. In addition to the statement of claim, the claimant needs to pay fees and submit a Submission Agreement. The fees owed for filing a FINRA arbitration claim are based off the sought remedies, hearing sessions, discovery motions and postponement fees. Fortunately, some individuals with financial difficulties can request a fee waiver.

Malecki Law’s newest securities attorney, Michael Liik will speak to law students on a panel at his alma mater, the Elisabeth Haub School of Law, tomorrow February 14, 2019. The event will feature a panel of lawyers educating law school students about their practice areas along with the ropes of professional networking.  As an attorney panelist, Mr. Liik will provide career advice as well as share his experiences as a former student now working as a securities attorney in New York City.

It is with great honor that Mr. Liik accepts this invitation to join the panel from the New York City Bar Association and Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Since graduating a few years ago, Mr. Liik has remained involved as an active member of his school’s alumni community. Continue reading

Financial professionals handling compliance keep abreast with changes in the regulatory landscape to effectively allocate resources. At the start of each year, regulatory agencies Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the Securities and Exchange Commission publish their priorities. FINRA’s recently released Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter states emerging issues as well as ongoing concerns for the upcoming year. In an introductory note, Robert Cook explains that this year’s letter more broadly relays FINRA’s priorities for risk monitoring with a more pronounced focus on new issues. Firms can use the information contained within this letter to ensure that their compliance, supervisory and risk management programs reach FINRA’s standards. Distinct from earlier times, the FINRA letter focuses on explaining new issues and risk analysis.

The main new issues on the regulatory agency’s radar are the firm’s involvement with online distribution platforms, fixed income mark-up disclosure, and regulatory technology. Specifically, FINRA is concerned with how firms meet AML requirements, supervise communications with the public and conduct suitability analysis when involved with the distribution of securities on online distribution platforms. FINRA plans to evaluate the risks of excessive or undisclosed compensation arrangements between firms and issuers for offerings exempt from registration under Regulation A. Furthermore, FINRA intends to assess how firms handle risks with sales of offerings under Regulation D to non-accredited investors. FINRA expects firms to follow FINRA rule 2232 and MSRB Rule G-15 to comply with mark-up or mark-down disclosure obligations on fixed income transactions. As more firms use regulatory technology for compliance, FINRA plans to examine the efficiency and risks involved.

While this year’s letter pays more mind to new issues, FINRA briefly restates ongoing problems that have already been named as top priorities. Notably, FINRA mentions suitability determinations, outside businesses activities, and private securities transactions; private placements; data quality and governance; communications with the public; trade and order reporting; anti-money laundering (AML); net capital and consumer protection; best execution; fraud; insider trading and market manipulation; record keeping, risk management and supervision related to these and other areas. As per usual, FINRA will be mindful of how firms supervise and respond to associated persons with flawed disciplinary records. In the rest of the letter, FINRA categorizes the other concerns into sales practice risks, operational risks, market risks, and financial risks.

Investors nationwide have been on edge after the worst annual stock market performance in a decade. China trade war tensions, rising interest rates, and the partial government shutdown have caused more volatility. With these recent swings in the stock market, some investors may notice corroborating shifts in their investment portfolio. Even in volatile markets, significant losses in a conservative or moderative portfolio should raise serious concern. Nearly all investors should have a diversified investment portfolio for protection from long-term losses. Diversification is a capital-preserving risk management method that calls for an investment portfolio to carry a variety of investments within different asset classes, countries, sectors, and companies.

Diversification is essential because correlated securities within the same asset class, sector, and country will tend to follow similar patterns.  Meanwhile, selecting securities from different areas will reduce such resulting risk.  Investment portfolios should not only include investments that differ by asset class. For example, holding many different investments tied to just the real estate sector is not a diversified portfolio. Common sectors include financial, healthcare, energy, energy, utilities, technology, consumer staples, industrials, materials, real estate, telecommunications, and consumer discretionary. Within each of these sectors, there are many excellent choices.

An investment strategy that includes diversification will, on average, yield higher returns and lower risk than a singular holding. A diversified investment portfolio has a cumulative lower variance in return or risk than its lowest asset. In a properly diversified portfolio, the decline of a few of your holdings should be countered by the state of other unaffected holdings. On the other hand, heavy concentration in one investment will leave your portfolio’s increase or decline entirely dependent on fewer factors. For instance, investing all of your money into one stock in a company that goes under will result in the loss of all your money. Ownership of more types of shares over a long time has tended to produce around 5%-8% in returns historically.

We have previously written on the concept of “churning,” which is a fraud perpetrated by brokers who buy and sell securities for the primary purpose of generating a commission, and where that activity would be considered excessive in light of the investor’s investment goals.  But is it possible to have a churning claim when a broker sells you an insurance product or recommends swapping out one variable annuity policy for another?  And can a single transaction be considered “excessive” in the context of a churning claim?  The answer to both of these questions is yes.

The law appears to provide an opening for churning claims when it comes to investors, and in particular retirees, who find themselves “stuck” with an illiquid annuity in their portfolio.  Retirees, who tend to need access to capital more than other segments of the population (due to not working and the increased medical costs associated with getting sick and old), are often sold unsuitable variable annuities, which can tie up retirement funds for decades.  Technically the investor can get of the policy, but not without paying significant IRS tax penalties and steep surrender charges, sometimes as high as 10% to 15%.  Sadly, these costs and product features are often misrepresented and go undisclosed at the point of sale.

While not all annuities are considered securities under the law, variable annuities certainly are securities.  The SEC requires the seller of a variable annuity to possess a Series 6 or 7 brokerage license with the Financial Industry and Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  Variable annuities can be distinguished from fixed annuities in that their returns are not fixed, but rather determined by the performance of the stock market.  One characteristic of a variable annuity policy is that you get to choose a fund to invest in, much like you would with a mutual fund.  Variable annuities are highly complex investment products.  They are also costly to investors, in part because of the high commissions they generate for the brokers who sell them.  Regardless of whether you were sold a variable annuity or some other type, it should be noted that FINRA requires its member brokerage firms to monitor all products sold by their brokers.

The current ongoing federal government shutdown adversely affects the Securities and Exchange Commission with a “very limited number of staff members available” to carry out the agency’s tasks. The SEC handles the enforcement of federal securities laws through overseeing approximately $90 trillion in annual securities trading as well as the activities of over 27,0000 registered entities and self-regulatory organizations. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement investigates into potential securities laws or regulatory violations and recommends any required action against perpetrators. Now, the SEC is reportedly operating at 5.8% and the enforcement division at 8% of capacity. In fact, the Division will take months after the shutdown ends to recover, according to the SEC’s Office of Internet Enforcement’s chief, John Stark. The constraints posed by the government shutdown come after the SEC’s outstanding enforcement and accomplishments in 2018, posted in their second annual report.

Starting with the first 2017 report, the Division assesses the performance of their fiscal year with five core principles in mind. These Division of Enforcement’s five principles are a focus on the Main Street Investor; individual accountability; keep pace with technological change; impose remedies that most effectively further enforcement goals; and continuously assess the allocation of resources. Based on their assessment, SEC’s codirectors Stephanie Avakin and Steven Peikin described the Division of Enforcement’s efforts this year as a “great success”. In evaluating their effectiveness, the Division’s assessment focuses more on the “nature, quality, and effects” of their enforcement actions, rather than just the quantitative metrics.

Nonetheless, the Division did accomplish impressive numeric feats as well despite the constraints of a hiring freeze and the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Kovesh v. SEC. The Division has investigated and recommended hundreds of cases alleging misconduct, leading to $794 million returned to harmed investors. Compared to the prior year, the SEC filed more enforcement actions (821) with higher numbers for stand alones (490), follow-on admin proceedings (210) and delinquent filings (121) in 2018.  The most common stand-alone enforcement actions involved securities offerings, investment advisors, and issuer reporting as well as disclosure. Despite Kovesh v. SEC limiting the window of time for collecting, the SEC ordered around $2.5 million in disgorgement and another $1.5 million in penalties.

Securities employees who decide to report covert unjust employer practices to other individuals are oftentimes taking a huge personal risk for public betterment. Without legal protection, these whistleblowers could end up facing termination, workplace harassment, and other retaliation. While various federal, state, and common laws exist to provide anonymity and other protections to whistleblowers, violations are not completely unprecedented. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some employers might still try to take illegal measures to find and persecute whistleblowers without regard for the rules. Fortunately, certain federal and state laws exist to also provide whistleblowers with justice because of the infringement of their rights.

Recently, New York state regulators ordered that Barclay PLC, as well as its New York branch, pay a $15 million fine for their “shortcomings in governance, controls and corporate culture” in handling a whistleblower matter. Barclay PLC’s chief executive officer, Jeff Staley allegedly tried to uncover the identity of an anonymous employee whistleblower. A New York Department of Financial Services probe uncovered that Barclay PLC’s handling of Staley’s situation potentially compromised its whistleblower program. As an additional caveat of the settlement, Barclays will submit a detailed written plan to ensure the implementation of the whistleblowing program as well as improve the board’s oversight going forward. Big banks, such as Barclay PLC are required to have a strong program in place to protect their employees.

The alleged violation ensued when Mr. Staley requested the head of Barclay PLC group security uncover the identity of the whistleblower author of two letters circling around the bank. The purported letters criticized Barclay PLC’s management, Mr. Staley and a newly hired employee, Tim Main. As repeated, Mr. Staley claims to have needed the identity of the letter writer to protect Tim Main from “personal attack”. The group chief compliance officer, general counsel and other bank officials had advised Mr. Staley to steer clear from his inquiries into the whistleblower. Yet, Mr. Staley claimed to have not been aware that unmasking a whistleblower was even against the law, according to news sources. Our whistleblowers find it puzzling how a highly ranked bank official could not understand nor respect the sanctity of whistleblower identity protections.

At some point in their careers, many financial professionals will find themselves in the receiving end of a subpoena from Securities and Exchange Commission, “SEC” or a Financial Industry National Regulatory Authority “FINRA” 8210 Request. The receipt of such documents signifies the regulatory or self-regulatory agencies’ request for information and/or documents in relation to an investigation of a potential securities laws violation. While the Securities and Exchange Commission will formally issue a subpoena, FINRA sends parties the equivalent inquiry letter, often referred to as an “8210 Request”. Both entities can request the receipt of a wide range of information and a high number of documents within a short amount of time. Furthermore, recipients who do choose not to respond to these critical requests honestly could ruin their careers and lives. While the SEC subpoena and FINRA 8210 request may share some similarities, there are many differences based on the powers allotted to the respective regulatory agencies.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is a federal government regulatory agency entrusted to develop national regulations and enforce federal laws. Upon reasonable suspicion of securities laws violations, the SEC can issue a subpoena to anyone. Meanwhile, FINRA is not an official government entity, but rather the security industry’s self-regulated membership organization. FINRA has the authority to request documents, information, and testimony from those under its’ jurisdiction in a FINRA 8210 letter. Both the SEC and FINRA run a similar on-the-record “OTR” interview, with the option of an attorney present in the event of a testimony request. However, the SEC offers more response flexibility, protections under the Fifth Amendment and investigation information access in comparison with FINRA.

In the face of a potential securities law violation, the SEC will often send subpoenas to the targets as well as any potential witnesses with information. A SEC subpoena can demand documents (duces tecum) or oral testimony (ad testifcandum) without including context. The SEC can start an investigation by presenting their suspicions in a formal order of investigation. Chiefly, a former SEC Enforcement attorney, John Reed Stalk alleges that there is a  “low standard” of cause needed for approved subpoena issuance. The formal order of investigation mainly contains information regarding the scope and possible subjects of the investigation. Subpoenaed parties and their attorneys can request the order.

Malecki Law continues to follow a petition filed in the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) in Mumbai, India concerning the takeover of a US litigation data-management firm, Xcellence Inc. (operating under the brand Xact Data Discovery, XDD USA) by a private equity firm, JLL Partners Fund VII, L.P. For background on the case, read “A Cautionary Tale for both Private Equity Investors and Portfolio Companies”. The National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) is a quasi-judicial forum in India, which adjudicates corporate stakeholder disputes and has all the powers of an Indian civil court.

The legal dispute involves Dominic Thomas Karipaparambil (Dominic Thomas), the 49% shareholder of Xact Data Discovery India Private Limited (XDD India), on one side and on the other side, XDD USA, XDD India, XDD USA’s India-based subsidiary, JLL Partners Fund VII, L.P. (JLL Partners), JLL XDD Holdings LLC. (JLL XDD), an entity owned by JLL, the directors of XDD India.  The directors of XDD India include the president and CEO of XDD USA, Mr. Robert Polus and surprisingly the Indian arm of the global accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (Deloitte).

XDD USA was originally formed in 1994 under a different name and operates 17 offices across the United States. XDD India was formed in 2007, by Robert Polus and Dominic Thomas and operates two locations in India. It appears that at some later date, Robert Polus transferred his stake in XDD India to XDD USA, making XDD India a subsidiary of XDD USA. This structure is not atypical from the trend of U.S. data management companies seeking to cut costs by looking overseas for cheaper labor. In this instance, it hypothetically permits a company like XDD USA to offer cut-rate corporate and legal services through its Indian subsidiary, which provides e-discovery and other document review services at a lower cost than what traditional law firms in the U.S. would charge.  In early 2018, the private equity firm JLL Partners announced it had reached a deal to acquire XDD USA from its previous owner and manager, Clearview Capital.