Articles Posted in Investment Fraud

Malecki Law is currently representing clients and investigating allegations against the brokerage and investment advisory firm Henley & Company, LLC and its recently deceased financial adviser, Philip Incorvia.  Public records show Mr. Incorvia openly and notoriously operated Jefferson Resources Inc. since 1992 (nearly 30 years, while being registered as a FINRA Series 7 licensed broker with Henley & Company – using Henley & Company as the website address for the company).  Mr. Incorvia was employed approximately 15 years with Henley and Company, operating both out of its offices in Shoreham and Uniondale, New York.  Malecki Law is looking for whistleblowers, witnesses, and other victims.

Malecki Law’s investigation relates to a possible Ponzi scheme and/or misappropriation of funds involving many investors and potentially many millions of dollars in losses.  The losses occurred across a number of purported “investments,” including but not limited to Jefferson Resources Inc., Vanderbilt Realty, and JRI Hedge Fund. The investments were purporting to be mutual funds, hedge funds, and index funds, but it is believed that they were fictitious.  Some were “income producing” while others rolled over.

A Ponzi scheme is a fictitious investment or scam, in which the Ponzi operator typically uses investor money for personal use and non-investment related purposes.  Earlier investors are typically given “returns” which consist of principal coming from newer investors.  Ponzi schemes tend to collapse when there are no more new investors to tap into, which often happens during adverse market conditions.  In this case, it is believed that there was no one left to continue the Ponzi scheme when Mr. Incorvia passed away in August 2012, so it collapsed.

In August 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted amendments to expand the definition of an “accredited investor.”  Adding these new expansive conditions as to who may qualify as an accredited investor will allow more investors to participate in private investment offerings, creating both more opportunity and more risk.  The goal of the SEC with this expansion was to both simplify and amplify investor opportunities, investor protections, and capital formation.

Traditionally, an accredited investor can be a business or individual that is qualified to trade unregistered, privately traded securities (i.e., not traded on a public stock exchange) by fulfilling specified minimum requirements such as net worth, income, assets, and trading experience or authority. Typically, issuers of unregistered securities are limited to sell only to accredited investors because they are considered more able to handle the associated risks.  While every investment has risk, non-public investments carry additional risk of having low liquidity, meaning it can be incredibly difficult to find a buyer if the investment goes south.

Accredited investors are important players in the securities industry because they provide liquidity and funds to new and unregistered investments in need of capital.  Historically, an accredited investor can be a bank, a private business, an organization, a director, or any individual who  typically has a separate or combined net worth of $1 million dollars.

Malecki Law is currently investigating allegations regarding a Ponzi scheme targeted by several regulators, including the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which filed a civil enforcement action against Avinash Singh and nine others, including Daniel Cologero and Randy Rosseau, who reside in Florida, and Hemraj Singh, from New Jersey, concerning allegations of an almost $5 million-dollar multi-level Ponzi scheme.  We are specifically interested in speaking to any affected investors in Highrise Advantage, LLC or other related investments discussed below. Upon information and belief, Mr. Singh may have been working closely with Equity Trust Company and one or more of its representatives, including Anthony (“Tony”) Sopko, who may have been helping to bring new investors into the scheme.

Mr. Singh is accused of misappropriating funds fraudulently solicited by him and his co-defendants.  They allegedly used their network of contacts to prey on those within their communities.  One individual charged, Surujpaul Sahdeo, was a priest who may have used his company, SR&B Enterprises, to prey on the Guyanese community and community church-goers, allegedly using their donations to fund the Ponzi scheme through Mr. Singh, who is alleged to have been a main point of contact for recruiting many investors. It is alleged that all of the funds were funneled through commodity pools set up to funnel the fraudulently solicited funds– Highrise Advantage, LLC., Green Knight Investments, LLC, Bull Run Advantage, LLC, and King Royalty, LLC.

Firms like Equity Trust Company have supervisory duties that require them to monitor both the internal and external business activities of their employees like Mr. Sopko.   This is significant because Ponzi victims often do not know who to turn to, as Ponzi funds are often spent and heavily depleted by the time a Ponzi scheme falls apart and is discovered.  Nevertheless, Malecki Law has decades of experience in successfully recovering millions of dollars from financial firms, such as those Malecki Law sued and successfully recovered from in Ponzi schemes perpetrated by Hector May and Robert Van Zandt.

On July 20, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought investment advisor and former registered representative Michael “Barry” Carter up on multiple federal charges relating to the alleged misappropriation of over $6 million in funds.  Mr. Carter allegedly stole this money from his brokerage customers, including nearly $1 million from one elderly client, defrauding them in the process in an effort to remain undetected.  His alleged fraudulent acts occurred between the fall of 2007 and spring of 2019 while working at Morgan Stanley, with over 40% of the misappropriation occurring in the last five years, all to sustain his extravagant lifestyle.

Mr. Carter was reportedly fired from Morgan Stanley in the summer of 2019 for misappropriation of funds.  Later that fall, FINRA launched an investigation into his alleged crimes and he was then barred by FINRA for refusing to turn over documents relating to the alleged misappropriations.

Additionally, the state of Maryland reportedly brought criminal charges against Mr. Carter, to which he has already pled guilty to the investment advisory fraud charges and wire fraud; as part of his plea agreement he will, according to prosecutors, be required to pay back about $4.3 million, the total net proceeds of his illegal activities.

Filing a claim for most investors is a walk over a new bridge and involves doing something they have never done before: filing a “lawsuit.” Most people never wanted to have anything to do with the law, but if you lost your life savings, you really do not have much of a choice but to fight to get it back.    The stress you may feel engaging in this process can be mitigated by understanding what lies ahead to prepare yourself mentally, emotionally and physically – by getting your evidence lined up.   Outlined below is the process of filing a claim in arbitration through the final days of trial, which will hopefully bring ease to questions you may have regarding investor arbitrations.

In today’s world, many people invest their money as a way to increase their income.  Some choose to invest on their own, while others use brokers and investment advisors.  As with any job, unfortunately in these professions, bad apples do exist.  Where wrongdoers exist, they cause harm to their clients and to their clients’ investment accounts.  If this happens, clients can sue their broker by filing an arbitration claim within the dispute resolution forum of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) – the only forum for retail investors to sue brokers and brokerage firms.  The initial claim papers filed details the party or parties that have wronged you, specifies the relevant facts of the events leading up to and causing the harm in your investment account(s), and lists the remedies requested.  When deciding on whether to file an arbitration claim with FINRA, Malecki Law’s FINRA arbitration attorneys can help discuss the merits of your claims and frame them in what is known as a “Statement of Claim,” like a complaint pleading in court.

Once a Statement of Claim arbitration has been filed with FINRA, the party or parties you are suing, also known as the “respondent(s),” have 45 days to file a response, which is called the “Statement of Answer.”  The Answer will typically include relevant facts, supporting documents, and defenses from the perspective of the broker or firm you are suing.  One can anticipate that in the Answer the respondent(s) will try to discredit your claims.  Malecki Law is skilled and very familiar with debunking these typical defenses, as well responding to any creative new tricks.  After reading the Answer, you have the opportunity to amend your Statement of Claim if you feel something should be changed from your originally filed claim.

Investors often ask whether a clearing firm can be liable for losses sustained in their accounts.  The answer is “yes.”  Traditionally, clearing firms, also known as clearing houses, are financial institutions established to handle the confirmation, settlement, and delivery of transactions.  To ensure its clients’ transactions are made in a prompt and efficient manner, the clearing firm acts as a middle-man and is essentially the buyer and seller in the transactions.  To attract business and compete with other clearing firms, clearing firms offer an ever-expanding suite of services that go beyond mere routine clearing functions, which often brings them to be actively and directly involved in the actions of brokerage firms and their brokers.  Courts have held that clearing firms that extend services beyond “mere ministerial or routine functions” can be liable to an investor for a broker-dealer or broker’s misdeeds.

On behalf of several investor clients, Malecki Law’s FINRA arbitration attorneys are currently investigating cases involving claims against Pershing, LLC, a clearing house, and its introducing brokerage firm client, Insight Securities, Inc.  The claims involve an SEC-censured entity, Biscayne Capital.  Our clients sustained losses in their accounts due, in part, to Pershing’s alleged negligent supervision of transactions through its shared platform with Insight.

In relationships like this, the introducing firm and clearing firm have a clearing agreement, usually giving the clearing firm discretion to terminate any account, the responsibility to notify the introducing broker of suspicious activity, and to provide training or trained employees to look out for misconduct.  Usually the clearing firm has the responsibility to conduct regulatory monitoring of SEC Financial Responsibility Rules and to be directly involved in Anti-Money Laundering oversight.  Thus, with these heightened responsibilities, a clearing firm can move beyond its ministerial and routine clearing functions.

Many clients are asking, “can my arbitration hearing be done online by video?” The answer is yes.  FINRA allows for remote hearing services, via Zoom and teleconference, to parties in all cases.  In arbitration, all parties can agree as to almost anything and FINRA will allow it – such as who the arbitrators are, methods of picking arbitrators and/or how the hearing will happen.  The trick is to get your adversary to agree to alternative hearing methods or to get a sitting arbitration panel to order (force) your adversary to do it. A hearing can happen a number of ways with FINRA’s blessing, so long as it can be recorded.  Next week, we expect that FINRA will set out more formal guidelines and we will update this blog in a new post.

Zoom is a user-friendly video platform that provides high-quality and secure options for conducting remote hearings.  The platform allows parties, arbitrators, counsel, and witnesses to share documents and their screens with other participants.  Zoom is a viable option for parties unable to attend an in-person hearing. Malecki Law’s FINRA arbitration attorneys have experience and systems in place, ready to use this method for hearings in investor arbitrations, as well as industry employment and regulatory matters.  For many years, remote witnesses have participated and testified via video and telephonic methods.  It is really not a completely new concept.

Whether the hearing is remote or in-person, the prehearing process will not be hindered.  In customer dispute cases, where customers bring claims against their broker and/or broker-dealer, all aspects, except for an in-person hearing, are done remotely (such as filing the claims, resolving discovery disputes, and interviewing witnesses).  As a matter of fact, most claims against a broker and/or broker-dealer will settle before the hearing is scheduled to begin.

Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) censured and assessed a fine of $50,000 against a national investment firm, Paulson Investment Company LLC, in connection with its sale and solicitation of private placement offerings to investors, in violation of Rule 506 of Regulation D and Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933.  Among other things, Regulation D (more commonly known as Reg D) provides a legal “safe harbor” for investment firms to sell and market private placements, which are restricted securities (i.e., not traded on a public market and therefore carry more risk), to no more than 35 non-accredited investors, provided the firm has a pre-existing relationship with that investor.  The law is intended to prevent advertising and marketing to non-accredited investors – a legal term for those who do not have the requisite financial means to bear risk or who are unsophisticated and cannot appreciate the risks of purchasing an investment that is typically illiquid and cannot readily be traded on a national exchange.  In violation of Reg D, as well as FINRA Rule 2010 (requiring all member firms to conduct their business with high standards of commercial honor), FINRA found that Paulson solicited 11 individuals and sold six separate private placement offerings, totaling approximately $4.5 million, prior to having a pre-existing and substantive relationship with these investors.

Perhaps this barely registers as a newsworthy event; brokerage firms are censured and fined all the time by regulators, and for much more than $50,000.  Paulson is considered a small to medium-sized firm and it is registered in 53 states and territories.  The firm has been licensed as a member brokerage firm with FINRA since 1971 and has carried its registration as an investment advisory firm with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) since 1983.  However, there are other recent developments at Paulson, particularly at its 40 Wall Street office in New York City, which should give pause to any investor or prospective retiree.

While Paulson derives more than 50% of its revenue from underwriting activities, it also engages in general brokerage activities by buying and selling investments for retail investors.  Among the brokers or registered employees at its Wall Street address, there are currently seven individuals with at least 3 or more public disclosures in the Central Registration Depository (CRD) known as BrokerCheck, a national database that tracks the background and disciplinary history of stockbrokers and other financial professional concerning customer complaints, regulatory or criminal events, and other financial disclosures (such as personal bankruptcy or tax liens).  This is significant, because, according to FINRA, most brokers have a clean history, with approximately 4% having been subject to at least one customer complaint, but only less than 0.41% with 3 or more BrokerCheck complaints.   Paulson’s Wall Street office alone employs seven such individuals with 3 or more disclosures.  But this is only scratching the surface.

Last week, a New York City panel of arbitrators with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) unanimously awarded an investor represented by Malecki Law over $200,000 in damages, plus attorneys’ fees of $67,000 and 5% interest dating back to May 2018.  The panel’s award found the New Jersey-based brokerage firm Network 1 Financial Securities Inc. to be liable in connection with the investor’s allegations of unsuitable investment recommendations, misrepresentations (NY General Business Law § 349), and failure to supervise its broker/financial adviser, Robert Ciaccio, who now has 7 disclosures on his public FINRA BrokerCheck disciplinary record (5 customer complaints and 2 regulatory censures).  The investment at issue was Proshares Ultra Bloomberg Crude Oil 2X (otherwise known by its stock symbol UCO), which Mr. Ciaccio recommended to the investor but failed to disclose the numerous risks associated with this product, which belongs to a group of products known as Non-Traditional Exchange Traded Funds (or Non-Traditional ETFs).

FINRA, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other regulators have repeatedly warned firms against selling Non-Traditional ETFs because they are difficult to understand and carry risks that are not easily understood by the typical investor.  Unlike a simple investment like a stock or bond, Non-Traditional ETFs are fee-laden, structured products, built with derivatives and complex mathematical formulas, which, in “simplest” terms, offer leverage and are designed to perform inversely to an outside benchmark index (e.g., the S&P 500, VIX, etc.).  Noting the popularity of these high-risk, high-cost products, FINRA has issued numerous investor alerts and warnings to member brokerage firms about Non-Traditional ETFs, stating:

“While such products may be useful in some sophisticated trading strategies, they are highly complex financial instruments that are typically designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Due to the effects of compounding, their performance over longer periods of time can differ significantly from their stated daily objective. Therefore, inverse and leveraged ETFs that are reset daily typically are unsuitable for retail investors who plan to hold them for longer than one trading session, particularly in volatile markets….  In particular, recommendations to customers must be suitable and based on a full understanding of the terms and features of the product recommended; sales materials related to leveraged and inverse ETFs must be fair and accurate; and firms must have adequate supervisory procedures in place to ensure that these obligations are met.”

With the highly-publicized Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which resulted in an ABC mini-series and the HBO original movie, Wizard of Lies, investors might tend to think that Ponzis are a thing of the past.  But Ponzi schemes are alive and well, and may even be on the rise.  According to a New York Times report from last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has prosecuted 50 percent more Ponzi cases in the last 10 years since the Madoff scheme was busted, affecting over 4 million investors in 291 Ponzi cases, ultimately costing investors more than $31 billion in losses.

This week, the SEC filed charges against yet another Ponzi fraudster, James T. Booth, who the SEC alleges to have conducted a multi-year scheme, defrauding approximately 40 investors out of up to $10 million.  The SEC complaint alleges that Mr. Booth fabricated elaborate account statements for his clients, many of whom were seniors and unsophisticated investors who utilized Mr. Booth to manage their retirement savings.  Mr. Booth is 74 years old and resides in Norwalk Connecticut, and he is the founder of Booth Financial Associates, a firm originally created by Booth to sell advisory services and insurance products.

Mr. Booth was also a financial advisor registered with the investment advisory and brokerage firm LPL Financial LLC, a firm that is registered with the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  Over time, Mr. Booth would solicit his customers from LPL to wire money away from LPL to invest in opportunities elsewhere, with promises of safer investments or higher returns.

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