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Recent SEC Releases
Thursday
Nov152012

Ponzi Schemer Who Fled to Peru When Scheme Collapsed Receives 14-Year Prison Sentence

A U.S. citizen that operated a foreign currency trading Ponzi scheme that bilked victims out of nearly $18 million was sentenced to serve more than fourteen years in federal prison.  Jeffrey Lowance, 51, was sentenced by United States District Judge Charles Norgle to serve 140 months in federal prison after previously being indicted on five counts of mail fraud, one count of wire fraud, and four counts of money laundering.  Lowrance was arrested in Peru last year, where he had reportedly fled after authorities began investigating his currency-trading operation

Beginning in at least 2004, Lowrance owned and operated Mentor Investment Group ("MIG") in San Diego, California.  MIG represented itself as a firm skilled in foreign-currency trading, soliciting potential investors with the promise that they could expect monthly returns ranging from 4% to 7%.  After the State of California issued a cease-and-desist order against MIG in 2006, Lowrance moved to Panama City, Panama, and arranged for MIG to be acquired by First Capital Savings &  Loan, Ltd. ("First Capital"), a New Zealand-based company also controlled by Lowrance.  Through First Capital, Lowrance continued to solicit investors, and raised more than $30 million from investors until the scheme's collapse in 2009.

As early as April 2008, undercover federal agents posed as potential investors and were told by Lowrance that his company was managing $37 million from over 400 investors.  However, according to authorities, First Capital was bankrupt by September 2008, and investors stopped receiving scheduled payments in July 2008.  In 2009, Lowrance fled from Panama City to Peru.  There, he is alleged to have continued his scheme operating a new entity, Private Global Banks, under the alias of Alan Carpenter. 

According to an update sent to investors in February 2009, Lowrance confessed that all of the investors' funds were gone due to his mismanagement. Lowrance was not the skilled forex trader he had represented himself to be, but instead had tried numerous methods to find a trading program that worked, including hiring two Peruvians from a trading class he started to do "chart review".  However, when the "chart review" strategy was tested with investor funds, it was not profitable.  In the update, Lowrance also warned people against going to authorities, as investors' chances of getting their money back would be hindered if Lowrance was locked up.  Lowrance was later arrested in Peru in 2011, and was subsequently extradited to the United States.  He also faced charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  

Along with this sentence, Lowrance was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims in the amount of $17.64 million.  

A compilation of legal documents pertaining to Lowrance's case is here.

The SEC complaint is here.

Thursday
Nov152012

Cincinnati Man Sentenced to 40 Years In Third Separate Sentencing For $9 Million Ponzi Scheme  

Continuing a recent spate of harsh sentences for sub-$25 million Ponzi schemes, a Cincinnati man receiving his sentence in the third jurisdiction that prosecuted him for a $9 million Ponzi scheme was sentenced to serve 40 years in state prison.  Jason Snelling, 48, had earlier pleaded guilty to twenty-five charges that included securities fraud, unlawful acts in the sale of securities, and failure to register as a broker-dealer.  Franklin Circuit II Judge Clay Kellerman handed down an eight-year sentence for each of five criminal events, but rather than ordering the terms to be served concurrently (at the same time), Judge Kellerman decided that the sentences would be served consecutively.  This is Snelling's third conviction for his role in the scheme, having previously received a six-year sentence from an Ohio state judge and an eleven-year term by an Ohio federal judge.  He was also ordered to pay $5.3 million in restitution, as well as forfeit various personal property acquired using scheme proceeds.

Snelling, along with partner Jerry Smith, operated Dunhill Investment Advisers and CityFund Advisory in downtown Cincinnati, where they promised lucrative returns through purported day-trading.  The two offered guaranteed rates of return ranging from ten to fifteen percent, with some investors receiving higher promised rates.  To assure investors of the safety of their funds, Snelling and Smith represented that their position would be liquidated to cash at the end of each trading day.  In total, the scheme raised nearly $9 million from seventy-two investors.  But instead of engaging in day-trading, Snelling and Smith spent the majority of investor funds to sustain an exorbitant lifestyle that consisted of boats, jet skis, plastic surgery, and private school tuition.  

Authorities arrested the pair last summer.  Snelling and Smith later pled guilty to federal charges, and a federal judge later sentenced him to serve eleven years.  Smith is currently awaiting two state court trials on securities fraud charges.  

It is unclear which sentence Snelling will begin serving first.  While there is no parole in the federal prison system, Snelling will be eligible for parole and a variety of sentence reductions for his state prison sentences.  

Thursday
Nov152012

Petters Trustee Sues BMO Bank For "Aiding and Abetting" $3.5 Billion Ponzi Scheme

The court-appointed trustee tasked with recovering assets for victims of Thomas Petters' $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme is taking aim at Petters' former bank, alleging that it ignored numerous red flags that should have alerted it to Petters' fraud, including over $35 billion in deposits.  BMO Bank, the current owner of M&I Bank ("M&I"), was accused of multiple charges, including aiding and abetting fraud, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiring to commit fraud. Doug Kelley, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, is seeking unspecified damages in excess of $50,000. 

The lawsuit centers on the "astronomical" sum of $35 billion in deposits that flowed into a Petters Companies Inc. account from 2003 until the fraud was uncovered in September 2008.  Petters raised funds from investors by promising lucrative returns from the purchase and resale of consumer electronics to big-box retail stores.  Despite the staggering amount of deposits made, Kelley alleges that none of the deposits originated from the retail stores that were supposedly the focal point of Petters' operation. 

Additionally, nearly $70 million was siphoned off into various personal accounts controlled by Petters, including at least seventeen transfers exceeding $1 million.  Despite M&I's apparent knowledge of the "frenzied activity" taking place in the account, Kelley argues that bank executives turned a blind eye to the possibility of wrongdoing to preserve the steady generation of fees from their business relationship with Petters. 

Mixed Success In Similar Lawsuits

Lawsuits against financial institutions by those tasked to recover assets in the wake of failed Ponzi schemes have met with mixed success, in part due to the heightened legal standard required to succeed on claims such as aiding and abetting fraud and/or breach of fiduciary duty.  Rather than a simple preponderance of the evidence, a bank must either have actual knowledge of the fraud, or knowledge and/or deliberate ignorance of certain "badges of fraud" that would put a reasonable person on notice.  Additionally, some courts have found that bankruptcy trustees or equity receivers do not have "standing" to bring the suits. 

For example, as part of his quest to recover assets for victims of Bernard Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme, court-appointed trustee Irving Picard filed suit against several financial behemoths, including JP Morgan Chase and HSBC Bank, seeking not only the return of fraudulent transfers received from Madoff, but also billions of dollars in damages under various common law theories including aiding and abetting fraud and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty that centered on the alleged ignorance of "myriad red flags and indicia of fraud."

After successfully winning the transfer of the suits from Bankruptcy Court (thought to be favorable to Picard) to a New York federal court, the financial defendants argued that Picard did not have legal "standing" to bring the claims.  Standing, as defined by United States District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff, requires a would-be litigant to demonstrate "the existence of a case or controversy and a personal stake in the outcome of the case." 

Not only did Picard lack standing to bring claims on behalf of the bankruptcy estate against third-parties like HSBC, ruled Judge Rakoff, but under the doctrine of in pari delicto, Picard was barred from suing to recover for a wrong that the bankruptcy entities essentially took part in.  Additionally, United States District Court Judge Colleen McMahon likened Picard's plight to that of a parking garage owner attempting to assert claims on behalf of a car that suffered damage while in traffic and before it entered the garage.  Picard has since appealed those rulings.

However, a recent win by victims of Scott Rothstein's $12 billion Ponzi scheme against TD Bank has some questioning whether the tides have turned.  In January 2012, a group of investors won a $65 million jury verdict against TD Bank in a Miami federal court after alleging that the bank and at least one of its executives had taken actions to further Rothstein's fraud in order to boost bank profits.  Besides the favorable verdict, the case was also notable in that it featured a TD Bank executive asserting his fifth amendment rights on the witness stand and the post-trial discovery that critical documents had been altered and/or withheld by the bank.  Following that verdict, TD Bank settled with another investor group led by the same attorney that had asserted similar claims.

While the prospect of holding a financial institution liable for investor losses from a massive Ponzi scheme such as Petters certainly is alluring, Mr. Kelley's likelihood of success is far from guaranteed.  Much will depend on the discovery as to whether M&I executives truly suspected Petters of fraud.  Additionally, internal risk documents such as Suspicious Activity Reports ("SAR's") a by-product of Patriot Act legislation requiring banks to report suspicious activity to the government, could also potentially be useful to gauge the bank's level of knowledge.  One could also speculate that Petters himself could be a favorable witness for Kelley - should he choose to cooperate.  

Wednesday
Nov142012

BNY Mellon Subsidiary Pays $210 Million to Settle Lawsuit Over Madoff Losses

An asset management subsidiary of BNY Mellon has agreed to pay $210 million to settle claims that it advised clients to invest in Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme despite suspecting Madoff of fraud.  Over the course of a ten-year period, Ivy Asset Management, LLC ("Ivy") received nearly $40 million in fees in return for conducting due diligence on Madoff.  The settlement with IAM represents the conclusion of multiple lawsuits brought by the New York Attorney General (the "NYAG"), the U.S. Department of Labor, and private plaintiffs.  Despite IAM employees voicing "deep" reservations about Madoff's operations, investors were given positive recommendations, with the only concern voiced relating to the difficulty of managing the enormous asset pool purportedly managed by Madoff.  Per its terms, the settlement applies only those investors who invested in "feeder funds" that funneled investor monies into Madoff's scheme.

In 2010, the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit charging IAM with violations of the Martin Act for fraudulent conduct in connection with the sale of securities, as well as fraud in the conduct of business and breach of fiduciary duty.  The suit sought damages, payment of restitution, and disgorgement of all fees received by Ivy.  Private investors also filed suit against IAM alleging similar claims.  

The charges focused on the level of due diligence IAM purported to conduct on behalf of its clients.  During the course of this due diligence, authorities alleged that Ivy discovered Madoff was not investing funds as promised.  While Madoff's advertised trading strategy featured the purchase and sale of enormous amounts of options, Ivy's investigation revealed that the actual option trading volume fell far short of what would be required. When Madoff was pressed as to this discrepancy, he provided IAM executives with "three vastly different explanations" that failed to allay concerns.  Indeed, according to internal IAM documents, one executive piped:

 Ah, Madoff, you omitted one possibility – he’s a fraud!

Yet, despite the inconsistent explanations given by Madoff and misgivings by executives, IAM failed to disclose any of these suspicions to investors in an effort to prevent the steady stream of lucrative fees.  As a result, IAM's clients, which included individual investors as well as New York union pension and welfare plans, ultimately lost approximately $236 million when Madoff's fraud was uncovered in December 2008.  

The settlement sheds light on the "feeder fund" investors, who to date have not been recognized as victims entitled to participate in the Madoff claims process.  Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee appointed to liquidate Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, has made significant strides in marshaling assets and to date has made two distributions to victims.  However, Picard's determination that only those who directly invested with Madoff were victims meant that thousands of investors whose Madoff investment was via a feeder fund were not considered victims - and thus not entitled to participate in the claims process.  

Indeed, while Picard received 16,519 customer claims, only 2,436 of those claims were "allowed" - with many being denied due to their status as "feeder fund" investors.  Under Picard's reasoning, only the feeder fund itself was a victim, with the "loss" suffered by that feeder fund consisting of the cumulative value of investments that fund had with Madoff.  Any distributions would thus be made to the feeder fund itself, which would then have the option of making distributions to its investors.

The IAM settlement is welcome news for those investors, which will provide a near-total recovery of their losses.  Ironically, while shut out of the Madoff distribution process, these investors now stand to recover nearly triple the amount distributed to Madoff victims.  In the press release put out by the New York Attorney General's office,  it was estimated that investors were also "expected to receive substantial additional payments at a future date from" Picard.  However, any future distribution by Picard would likely not occur until other similar situated victims have received equal distributions.  

The settlement also marks the second significant recovery in recent efforts by the office of the New York Attorney General to prosecute those who were involved in the Madoff scandal.  Earlier this summer, the NYAG announced that it had reached an agreement with prominent hedge fund manager J. Ezra Merkin to return approximately $400 million to investors in four Merkin funds that lost over $1 billion with Madoff. Picard later objected to that settlement, claiming that it encroached on his exclusive authority to recovery assets for Madoff's victims.  According to Picard, if the settlement was approved, it would deprive Merkin of sufficient funds to satsify Picard's pending claims totaling $500 million and leave nothing for the majority of Madoff victims.  

Tuesday
Nov132012

Victims Cheer As Judge Hands Down 19-Year Sentence For $60 Million Silver Ponzi Scheme

A federal courtroom erupted in cheers as a South Carolina man learned he will spend the next nineteen years in prison for operating a massive Ponzi scheme that duped investors out of $60 million. Ronnie Wilson, 65, had pled guilty to two counts of mail fraud earlier this summer, and had faced a statutory maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Wilson received a 235-month sentence - five months short of the maximum 20-year sentence - for what authorities called one of the worst financial frauds in state history.  Along with the sentence, Wilson was also ordered to pay $57,401,009 in restitution and serve three years of probation upon release. 

As detailed in an earlier Ponzitracker article leading up to the sentencing, Wilson operated Atlantic Bullion & Coin, Inc. since at least 2001, promising investors lucrative gains by profiting off the appreciation of silver without having to actually physically acquire the precious metal.  Investors were told that Wilson would purchase the silver and arrange for safekeeping at a Delaware depository.  Ultimately, over $90 million was raised from investors.  However, Wilson purchased very little actual silver, and instead used investor funds to make principal and profit distributions to existing investors - the classic hallmark of a Ponzi scheme.  

At the sentencing hearing, Wilson recounted that while the fraud began on a small scale, it soon spiraled out of control to the point where Wilson began stealing from his daughter and brother.  The court-appointed receiver, Beattie Ashmore, has indicated that his investigation thus far "would paint a very dim picture" of a meaningful recovery of assets for distribution to victims.  

The Receiver's website is here