SEC Announces Charges in Scheme to Secretly Enable Lawbreakers to Run Microcap Company

As released by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced fraud charges against four individuals and a microcap company for concealing from investors that two lawbreakers ran the company.

According to the SEC’s orders instituting administrative proceedings, the mission of Natural Blue Resources Inc. was to create, acquire, or otherwise invest in environmentally-friendly companies, including an initiative to locate, purify, and sell water recovered from underground aquifers in New Mexico and other areas with depleting water resources. What investors didn’t know was that two individuals with prior law violations – James E. Cohen and Joseph Corazzi – secretly controlled the operational and management decisions of Natural Blue while calling themselves outside “consultants.” This arrangement enabled them to be de facto officers of Natural Blue and personally profit from the company without disclosing their past brushes with the law to investors. Cohen, who lives in Windermere, Fla., was previously incarcerated for financial fraud. Corazzi, who resides in Albuquerque, N.M., was previously charged with violating federal securities laws and permanently barred from acting as an officer or director of a public company.

“Cohen and Corazzi concealed their involvement through a so-called ‘consulting’ agreement, but their influence over the issuer spread much further,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division. “Investors in Natural Blue had a right to know who was running the company behind the scenes.”

The SEC has suspended trading in Natural Blue stock. The other two individuals charged in the case are Toney Anaya and Erik Perry, who were former chief executive officers at Natural Blue. The SEC’s orders find that they misled investors by failing to disclose that Cohen and Corazzi were running the company in spite of their criminal or disciplinary histories.

Anaya, who is a former New Mexico governor and attorney general, and Perry each agreed to settle the charges. Anaya has cooperated extensively with the SEC’s investigation.

“Preventing past law violators from raising money in our markets is critical to preserving investor confidence,” said Paul Levenson, director of the SEC’s Boston Regional Office. “Natural Blue and its officers attempted an end-run around the rules designed to prevent recidivists from getting their hands on the controls of public companies.”

According to the SEC’s orders, Cohen and Corazzi created Natural Blue so they and other entities they controlled could receive money and stock from the company and profit by hundreds of thousands of dollars. While Natural Blue was ostensibly led by Anaya and subsequently Perry, management decisions made by Cohen and Corazzi resulted in no revenues or viable business operations for the company. Anaya and Perry each deferred to Cohen and Corazzi in derogation of their responsibilities. Natural Blue and Perry also made various material misrepresentations about the company, its contracts, and its anticipated revenue in a February 2011 press release as well as on a website and verbally to investors.

Anaya, who served as Natural Blue’s CEO from August 2009 to January 2011, has signed a cooperation agreement with the SEC in which he has consented to the entry of a cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the charges. He will be barred from participating in any offering of a penny stock for at least five years. Any financial penalties will be determined at a later date.

Perry, who replaced Anaya and served as CEO until June 2011, agreed to settle the case by consenting to the entry of a cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the charges. Perry, who previously resided in Massachusetts and currently lives in Bulgaria, agreed to pay a $150,000 penalty and be permanently barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company and from participating in any offerings of penny stock.

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California School District Charged with Misleading Investors

As published by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a school district in California with misleading bond investors about its failure to provide contractually required financial information and notices. The case is the first to be resolved under a new SEC initiative to address materially inaccurate statements in municipal bond offering documents.

The SEC found that in the course of a 2010 bond offering, Kings Canyon Joint Unified School District affirmed to investors that it had complied with its prior continuing disclosure obligations. The statement was inaccurate because between at least 2008 and 2010, the school district had failed to submit some required disclosures. The California school district agreed to settle the charges without admitting to or denying the findings.

Under the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) initiative, the SEC’s Enforcement Division agreed to recommend standardized settlement terms for issuers and underwriters who self-report or were already under investigation for violations involving continuing disclosure obligations. The 2014 initiative, launched on March 10, expires on September 10.

“The integrity of the municipal securities market requires that issuers carefully comply with all of their disclosure obligations,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Our MCDC initiative is one piece of our efforts to ensure that issuers meet their obligations going forward.”

LeeAnn Ghazil Gaunt, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit added, “An important component of the MCDC program is that it provides issuers who were already under investigation the opportunity to accept the standard terms and resolve their enforcement matters in a fair and efficient manner. We are pleased that King’s Canyon has taken advantage of the program and we continue to encourage all eligible issuers and underwriters to do so while the MCDC terms are still available.”

The SEC’s order instituting settled administrative proceedings finds that in three bond offerings between 2006 and 2007, Kings Canyon contractually agreed to disclose annual financial information and notices of certain events pertaining to those bonds. When it conducted a $6.8 million bond offering in November 2010, Kings Canyon was required to describe any instances where it had failed to materially comply with its prior disclosure obligations. In the 2010 offering document, Kings Canyon inaccurately affirmed that there was “no instance in the previous five years in which it failed to comply in all material respects with any previous continuing disclosure obligation.” Because Kings Canyon failed to submit some of the contractually required disclosures relating to the 2006 and 2007 offerings, the November 2010 bond offering document contained an untrue statement of a material fact.

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Kings Canyon consented to an order to cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act. It also agreed to adopt written policies for its continuing disclosure obligations, comply with its existing continuing disclosure obligations, cooperate with any subsequent investigation by the Enforcement Division, and disclose the terms of its settlement with the SEC in future bond offering materials.

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Fraud Charges Filed Against Three Former Regions Bank Executives in Accounting Scheme

As reported by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced fraud charges against three former senior managers of Regions Bank for intentionally misclassifying loans that should have been recorded as impaired for accounting purposes. As a result, the bank’s publicly-traded holding company overstated its income and earnings per share in its financial reporting.

The SEC also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with Regions Financial Corp., which substantially cooperated with the agency’s investigation and undertook extensive remedial actions. Regions will pay a total of $51 million to resolve parallel actions by the SEC, Federal Reserve Board, and Alabama Department of Banking.

According to the SEC’s orders instituting administrative proceedings against the three former managers, Thomas A. Neely Jr. was the principal architect of the scheme while serving as head of Regions Bank’s risk analytics group in 2009. Along with the bank’s head of special assets Jeffrey C. Kuehr and chief credit officer Michael J. Willoughby, Neely took intentional steps to circumvent internal accounting controls and improperly classify $168 million in commercial loans as performing so Regions could avoid recording a higher allowance for loan and lease losses.

Kuehr and Willoughby agreed to settle the SEC’s charges by paying penalties of $70,000 apiece and consenting to bars from serving as officers or directors of public companies. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement will continue to litigate its case against Neely.

“Our enforcement actions against three senior executives coupled with the deferred prosecution agreement with Regions demonstrate that we will aggressively pursue individual responsibility while rewarding extraordinary cooperation and remediation by companies,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “The bank helped us bring a case against culpable individuals while remediating the misconduct by restructuring its processes and putting new management in place, among other things.”

According to the SEC’s orders and the deferred prosecution agreement, Regions Bank tracked and recorded its non-performing loans (NPLs) for internal performance metrics and regular financial reporting. NPLs typically were placed on non-accrual status when it was determined that payment of all contractual principal and interest was 90 days past due or otherwise in doubt. Once a loan was placed in non-accrual status, uncollected interest accrued during that current year was reversed and Regions Bank’s interest income would be reduced. Non-accrual status also served as a trigger for Regions Bank to consider whether the specific loan was impaired and to determine an allowance for loan and lease losses in accordance with U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

The SEC’s Division of Enforcement alleges that when personnel within Regions Bank’s special asset department initiated procedures to place approximately $168 million in NPLs into non-accrual status during the first quarter of 2009, Neely arbitrarily and without supporting documentation required the loans to remain in accrual status. By failing to classify the impaired loans in accordance with its policies, Regions’ financial statements for the quarter ended March 31, 2009, were materially misstated and not in conformity with GAAP. In furtherance of the scheme, Neely and Willoughby knowingly provided understated NPL data for the quarter to the Regions’ CFO and other senior executives during a meeting in late March.

The SEC’s order against Neely charges him with violations of the antifraud, reporting, books and records, and internal controls provisions of the federal securities laws. Kuehr and Willoughby consented to the entry of a cease-and-desist order finding that they violated or caused violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 as well as the reporting, books and records, and internal controls provisions of the federal securities laws. Without admitting or denying the findings, Kuehr and Willoughby agreed to pay their respective $70,000 penalties plus be prohibited from serving as officers or directors of public companies for a period of five years.

The deferred prosecution agreement with Regions relates to the bank’s failure to maintain adequate accounting controls at the time. The agreement credits the company’s extensive remedial efforts, including the creation of a new problem asset division with entirely new management and significantly enhanced procedures. The agreement credits the substantial cooperation by Regions during the SEC’s investigation, and imposes a $26 million penalty that will be offset provided that the company pays a $46 million penalty assessed in the Federal Reserve’s action. Regions also will pay a $5 million penalty to the Alabama Department of Banking.

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Private Equity Firm Charged with Pay-to-Play Violations

As released by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged a Philadelphia-area private equity firm with violating “pay-to-play” rules by continuing to receive advisory fees from the city and state pension funds following campaign contributions made by an associate in 2011 to the governor of Pennsylvania and a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.

In the SEC’s first case under pay-to-play rules for investment advisers, TL Ventures Inc. agreed to settle the charges by paying nearly $300,000.

Pay-to-play rules adopted in 2010 prohibit investment advisers from providing compensatory advisory services – either directly to a government client or through a pooled investment vehicle – for two years following a campaign contribution by the firm or certain associates to political candidates or officials in a position to influence the selection or retention of advisers to manage public pension funds or other government client assets.

An SEC investigation found that TL Ventures violated pay-to-play rules by continuing to receive compensation from two public pension funds – Pennsylvania’s state retirement system and Philadelphia’s pension plan – within two years after an associate made a $2,500 campaign contribution to a Philadelphia mayoral candidate and a $2,000 campaign contribution to the governor of Pennsylvania. The mayoral position appoints three of the nine members of the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement. Therefore, a mayor can influence the hiring of investment advisers for the public pension fund. The 11-member board of Pennsylvania’s state retirement system includes six gubernatorial appointees. Therefore, a governor can influence the hiring of investment advisers for the public pension fund. After the contributions, TL Ventures improperly continued to receive compensation from the pension funds for those advisory services.

“We will use all available enforcement tools to ensure that public pension funds are protected from any potential corrupting influences,” said Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “As we have done with broker-dealers, we will hold investment advisers strictly liable for pay-to-play violations.”

LeeAnn Ghazil Gaunt, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit, added, “Public pension funds are increasingly investing in alternative investment vehicles such as hedge funds and private equity funds. When dealing with public pension fund clients, advisers to those kinds of investment vehicles should be mindful of the restrictions that can arise from political contributions.”

The SEC’s orders instituting settled administrative proceedings also charged TL Ventures and an affiliated adviser Penn Mezzanine Partners Management L.P. with improperly acting as unregistered investment advisers. According to the orders, TL Ventures and Penn Mezzanine separately claimed to be exempt from SEC registration in March 2012, however their operations were closely integrated and significantly overlapped. Because they were not operationally independent of each other, TL Ventures and Penn Mezzanine should have been integrated as a single investment adviser for purposes of registration requirements or determining the applicability of any exemption.

The SEC’s order finds that TL Ventures violated Sections 203(a), 206(4) and 208(d) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 as well as Rule 206(4)-5. TL Ventures is ordered to pay disgorgement of $256,697, prejudgment interest of $3,197 and penalty of $35,000. TL Ventures agreed to be censured and to cease and desist from committing or causing any violations and any future violations of the provisions referenced in the order. TL

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Florida-Based Hedge Fund Advisory Firm Charged with Scheme to Misuse Investor Proceeds

As reported by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based hedge fund advisory firm and its founder with fraudulently shifting money from one investment to another without informing investors. The firm’s founder and another individual later pocketed some of the transferred investor proceeds to enrich themselves.

The SEC alleges that Weston Capital Asset Management LLC and its founder and president Albert Hallac illegally drained more than $17 million from a hedge fund they managed and transferred the money to a consulting and investment firm known as Swartz IP Services Group Inc. The transaction went against the hedge fund’s stated investment strategy and wasn’t disclosed to investors, who received account statements falsely portraying that their investment was performing as well or even better than before. Weston Capital’s former general counsel Keith Wellner assisted the activities.

The SEC further alleges that out of the transferred investor proceeds, Hallac, Wellner, and Hallac’s son collectively received $750,000 in payments from Swartz IP. Weston Capital and Hallac also wrongfully used $3.5 million to pay down a portion of a loan from another fund managed by the firm.

“Investment advisers owe their clients a fiduciary duty of utmost good faith and full disclosure about what they’re doing with their money,” said Eric I. Bustillo, director of the SEC’s Miami Regional Office. “Weston and Hallac dishonored that duty with Wellner’s assistance by secretly steering investor proceeds to a third party and then pocketing some of those funds.”

Weston Capital, Hallac, and Wellner agreed to settle the SEC’s charges along with Hallac’s son Jeffrey Hallac, who is named as a relief defendant in the SEC’s complaint for the purposes of recovering ill-gotten gains in his possession. The court will determine monetary sanctions for Weston Capital and Hallac at a later date. Wellner and Jeffrey Hallac each agreed to pay $120,000 in disgorgement.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Weston Capital managed more than a dozen unregistered hedge funds in early 2011 with combined total assets of approximately $230 million. One of the funds managed by the firm was Wimbledon Fund SPC, which was segregated into five separate classes of investment portfolios. The Class TT Segregated Portfolio was required to invest all of its investor money in a diversified multi-billion hedge fund called Tewksbury Investment Fund Ltd., that invested in short-term, low risk interest bearing accounts and U.S. Treasury Bills.

The SEC alleges that in violation of its stated investment strategy, Weston Capital and Hallac redeemed TT Portfolio’s entire investment in the Tewksbury hedge fund and transferred the money to Swartz IP. The transaction was not disclosed to investors and Weston Capital and Hallac solicited and received investments for the TT Portfolio during this time while knowing the funds would not be invested in Tewksbury. As soon as Swartz IP received the money transfers, it disbursed the funds primarily to a special purpose entity created to support and finance varying medically related business ventures.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that Weston and Hallac violated federal anti-fraud laws and rules as well as Sections 206(1), 206(2), and 206(4) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rule 206(4)-8, and that Wellner aided and abetted these violations. Without admitting or denying the allegations, Weston Capital, Hallac, and Wellner consented to the entry of a judgment enjoining them from future violations of these provisions.

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Philadelphia-based Private Equity Firm Charged With Pay-to-Play Violations

As published by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a Philadelphia-area private equity firm with violating “pay-to-play” rules by continuing to receive advisory fees from the city and state pension funds following campaign contributions made by an associate in 2011 to the governor of Pennsylvania and a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.

In the SEC’s first case under pay-to-play rules for investment advisers, TL Ventures Inc. agreed to settle the charges by paying nearly $300,000.

Pay-to-play rules adopted in 2010 prohibit investment advisers from providing compensatory advisory services – either directly to a government client or through a pooled investment vehicle – for two years following a campaign contribution by the firm or certain associates to political candidates or officials in a position to influence the selection or retention of advisers to manage public pension funds or other government client assets.

An SEC investigation found that TL Ventures violated pay-to-play rules by continuing to receive compensation from two public pension funds – Pennsylvania’s state retirement system and Philadelphia’s pension plan – within two years after an associate made a $2,500 campaign contribution to a Philadelphia mayoral candidate and a $2,000 campaign contribution to the governor of Pennsylvania. The mayoral position appoints three of the nine members of the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement. Therefore, a mayor can influence the hiring of investment advisers for the public pension fund. The 11-member board of Pennsylvania’s state retirement system includes six gubernatorial appointees. Therefore, a governor can influence the hiring of investment advisers for the public pension fund. After the contributions, TL Ventures improperly continued to receive compensation from the pension funds for those advisory services.

“We will use all available enforcement tools to ensure that public pension funds are protected from any potential corrupting influences,” said Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “As we have done with broker-dealers, we will hold investment advisers strictly liable for pay-to-play violations.”

LeeAnn Ghazil Gaunt, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit, added, “Public pension funds are increasingly investing in alternative investment vehicles such as hedge funds and private equity funds. When dealing with public pension fund clients, advisers to those kinds of investment vehicles should be mindful of the restrictions that can arise from political contributions.”

The SEC’s orders instituting settled administrative proceedings also charged TL Ventures and an affiliated adviser Penn Mezzanine Partners Management L.P. with improperly acting as unregistered investment advisers. According to the orders, TL Ventures and Penn Mezzanine separately claimed to be exempt from SEC registration in March 2012, however their operations were closely integrated and significantly overlapped. Because they were not operationally independent of each other, TL Ventures and Penn Mezzanine should have been integrated as a single investment adviser for purposes of registration requirements or determining the applicability of any exemption.

The SEC’s order finds that TL Ventures violated Sections 203(a), 206(4) and 208(d) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 as well as Rule 206(4)-5. TL Ventures is ordered to pay disgorgement of $256,697, prejudgment interest of $3,197 and penalty of $35,000. TL Ventures agreed to be censured and to cease and desist from committing or causing any violations and any future violations of the provisions referenced in the order. TL Ventures neither admitted nor denied the findings in consenting to the SEC’s order.

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Four California Residents Charged in $12 Million Insider Trading Scheme

As released by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged four Northern California residents with insider trading in Ross Stores stock options based on nonpublic information about monthly sales results leaked by one of the retailer’s employees.

The SEC alleges that Saleem Khan was routinely tipped by his friend Roshanlal Chaganlal, who was a director in the finance department at Ross headquarters in Dublin, Calif. Khan used the confidential information to illegally trade on more than 40 occasions ahead of the company’s public release of financial results. Besides trading in his own brokerage account, Khan traded in his brother-in-law’s account as well as an account belonging to another acquaintance. Khan also tipped his work colleagues Ranjan Mendonsa and Ammar Akbari so they too could trade in Ross stock options based on the nonpublic information. The insider trading resulted in collective profits of more than $12 million.

The SEC further alleges that at the outset of the scheme, Chaganlal gave $17,000 to Khan for the purpose of insider trading in Ross securities using the brother-in-law’s account. They attempted to disguise the exchange by using two cashier’s checks for $8,500 purchased in the name of Chaganlal’s wife of a different surname. Khan later funneled $130,000 of the generated trading profits back to Chaganlal by using third-party intermediaries. For example, Khan wrote Akbari a check for $35,000, and Akbari in turn wrote two checks totaling $35,000 to Chaganlal’s wife. Another $75,000 was routed in a roundabout way to a title company so it could be credited at closing toward Chaganlal’s purchase of a newly-built home.

“Khan and Chaganlal took advantage of confidential company data to systematically trade in Ross securities and reap millions of dollars in profits,” said Jina L. Choi, director of the SEC’s San Francisco Regional Office. “Even when insider traders try to conceal their profits and kickbacks by using other accounts and intermediaries, we’re committed to piecing together these widespread schemes and catching the perpetrators.”

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in federal court in San Francisco, Khan separately made approximately $450,000 in illicit profits by insider trading in stock options of software company Taleo Corporation ahead of its 2012 acquisition by Oracle Corporation. Khan began purchasing large numbers of options in Taleo six days before the merger announcement based on nonpublic information he received from an insider he knew at Oracle. Khan had never previously traded in Taleo securities.

The SEC alleges that the serial insider trading involving Ross securities began in August 2009 and continued until December 2012, when Chaganlal was terminated by the company. He had access to confidential sales figures on an internal webpage limited to a relatively small group of Ross employees. Chaganlal regularly communicated the confidential details to Khan so he could trade ahead of impending monthly sales announcements by Ross. Khan generated $5.4 million in profits in his own account, and $6 million in profits in his brother-in-law’s account. Khan’s supervisor Mendonsa made approximately $800,000 in insider trading profits based on the nonpublic information that Khan in turn tipped to him. Akbari made approximately $2,000 by insider trading on Khan’s illegal tips.

The SEC’s complaint names two relief defendants – Khan’s acquaintance Michael Koza and Khan’s brother-in-law Shahid Khan – for the purposes of recovering insider trading profits in their brokerage accounts through trades conducted by Khan. They each have agreed to settle the matter by paying the court the entire amount of insider trading profits remaining in their accounts, which total $240,741 for Shadid Khan and $31,713 for Koza.

The SEC’s complaint charges Saleem Khan, Chaganlal, Mendonsa, and Akbari with violating the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws. The complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, disgorgement of illicit profits plus interest, and financial penalties. The complaint also seeks an officer-and-director bar against Chaganlal.

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Chicago-Area Attorney Charged After SEC Exam Spots Fraud in Real Estate Investment Offering

As released by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged the founder of an investment advisory firm located in suburban Chicago with defrauding investors in connection with a real estate venture for which his firm offered securities.

After an SEC examination of Kenilworth Asset Management LLC detected potential misconduct that was referred to the agency’s Enforcement Division, the ensuing investigation found that Robert C. Acri misled clients in the offer and sale of promissory notes issued for the redevelopment of a retail shopping center near Hammond, Ind. Despite saying the investments would specifically be used for this project and secured by a security interest in real estate, Acri misappropriated $41,250 of the proceeds for other uses and took no action to ensure that a security interest was recorded. Acri failed to disclose several other material facts to investors, including a primary purpose behind the investment offer – Kenilworth was attempting to rescue money that other Acri clients had previously invested in the developer of the same real estate project. Acri also concealed from investors that Kenilworth was to receive a five percent commission on each sale of notes.

Acri, a licensed attorney who lives in Winnetka, Ill., agreed to settle the SEC’s charges by disgorging the misappropriated investor funds and undisclosed commissions plus interest and an additional penalty for a total of approximately $115,000 in monetary sanctions. Acri also agreed to cease and desist from violations of the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws and to be barred from the securities industry, from participating in penny stock offerings, and from appearing before the SEC as an attorney on behalf of any entity regulated by the agency. Acri resigned from Kenilworth in August 2012.

“Acri wasn’t honest with his clients and hid serious conflicts of interest from them while blatantly disregarding his fiduciary duty as an investment adviser,” said Robert J. Burson, senior associate regional director of the SEC’s Chicago office.

According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding, Acri controlled Kenilworth’s bank accounts, hired employees, and made significant decisions about the firm’s policies, practices, and investment offers to clients. In early 2011, Acri decided to raise funds from Kenilworth clients for the Hammond, Ind., project when the project’s developer Praedium Development Corporation was unable to obtain financing from banks and other traditional lenders. As part of this effort, Praedium created a new entity Prairie Common Holdings LLC to issue the notes. One of Acri’s primary purposes for selling Prairie’s notes to Kenilworth clients was to give other Kenilworth clients who had invested in Praedium through a private fund several years earlier a chance to recover their money from that investment. Praedium had previously defaulted on a half-million-dollar loan from the private fund.

The SEC’s order finds that Acri purposely failed to disclose significant facts and conflicts of interest when offering the promissory notes to clients, who were not told about the prior loan or that Praedium and an affiliate had been delinquent in the payment of its mortgage, property taxes, and some contractor invoices. In fact, Acri did not even disclose that Praedium was the developer behind the Prairie project or that one of Praedium’s owners was having personal financial difficulties and was Acri’s personal friend.

According to the SEC’s order, Acri misappropriated $41,250 from the client funds that were supposed to be used to develop the Hammond, Ind. Project. Acri instead used that money to repay other clients and former clients, pay an individual to purportedly seek a loan for Praedium, and toward a settlement in a separate lawsuit that had been brought against him. Acri also did not inform investors about the $13,750 that Kenilworth received in commissions for selling the promissory notes.

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Bitcoin Entrepreneur Charged With Offering Unregistered Securities

As released by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission:

The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged the co-owner of two Bitcoin-related websites for publicly offering shares in the two ventures without registering them.

An SEC investigation found that Erik T. Voorhees published prospectuses on the Internet and actively solicited investors to buy shares in SatoshiDICE and FeedZeBirds. But he failed to register the offerings with the SEC as required under the federal securities laws. Investors paid for their shares using Bitcoin, a virtual currency that can be used to purchase real-world goods and services and exchanged for fiat currencies on certain online exchanges. The profits ultimately earned by Voorhees through the unregistered offerings totaled more than $15,000.

Voorhees agreed to settle the SEC’s charges by paying full disgorgement of the $15,843.98 in profits plus a $35,000 penalty for a total of more than $50,000.

“All issuers selling securities to the public must comply with the registration provisions of the securities laws, including issuers who seek to raise funds using Bitcoin,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “We will continue to focus on enforcing our rules and regulations as they apply to digital currencies.”

According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding, the first unregistered offering occurred in May 2012 as 2,600 bitcoins were raised through the sale of 30,000 shares in FeedZeBirds, which promises to pay bitcoins to Twitter users who forward its sponsored text messages. Then in two separate offerings from August 2012 to February 2013, SatoshiDICE sold 13 million shares and raised 50,600 bitcoins that were worth approximately $722,659 at the time. SatoshiDICE, which calls itself the biggest Bitcoin-betting game in the world and pays out casino-like winnings in bitcoins, ultimately returned these offering proceeds to investors in a buy-back transaction in July 2013. A significant rise in the exchange rate of U.S. dollars to bitcoins actually increased the amount paid back to investors to approximately $3.8 million for 45,500 bitcoins.

The SEC’s order finds that Voorhees actively solicited investors to buy FeedZeBirds and SatoshiDICE shares on a website dedicated to Bitcoin known as the Bitcoin Forum. Voorhees also publicly promoted the unregistered offerings on other Bitcoin-related websites as well as Facebook. The first unregistered offering was explicitly referred to as the “FeedZeBirds IPO.” Despite these general solicitations, no registration statement was filed for the FeedZeBirds or SatoshiDICE offerings, and no exemption from registration was applicable to these transactions.

The SEC’s order finds that Voorhees violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933. Voorhees consented to cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of the registration provisions without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings. In addition to the monetary sanctions, Voorhees agreed that he will not participate in any issuance of any security in an unregistered transaction in exchange for any virtual currency including Bitcoin for a period of five years. The entry of the SEC’s order disqualifies Voorhees from relying on Rule 506(b) and 506(c) of Regulation D under the Securities Act, as defined in the bad actor disqualification provisions of Rule 506.

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New York-based Investment Adviser Charged with Defrauding Clients

As published by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission,

The Securities and Exchange Commission filed an emergency enforcement action to halt an ongoing fraud by an investment adviser based in Albany, N.Y., who is charged with lying to clients about the success of their investments while stealing their money for his personal use.

The SEC alleges that Scott Valente and his firm The ELIV Group LLC have fraudulently raised more than $8.8 million from approximately 80 clients by falsely claiming they achieve consistent and outsized positive returns among other misrepresentations about the safety of the investments. ELIV Group has in fact earned no positive results at all, instead sustaining consistent investment losses for the past three years. Meanwhile, Valente has been making substantial cash withdrawals of client funds and spending their money on his home improvements and mortgage payments as well as jewelry and a vacation condominium. Valente’s unsuccessful trading strategies and misappropriations have severely diluted the amount of client funds on hand at ELIV Group, and the SEC is seeking an asset freeze to halt the fraud as Valente continues to solicit new clients with his false claims. ELIV Group has offices in Albany and Warwick, N.Y.

“Valente used his one-man advisory firm to fraudulently lure unsuspecting investors in the Albany and Warwick communities to invest millions of dollars with him as advisory clients,” said Andrew M. Calamari, director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office. “He said all the right things to make investors believe he was making the right investments and taking the right precautions with their money, but he was merely telling blatant false tales about the safety and success of the investments.”

Sanjay Wadhwa, senior associate director for enforcement in the SEC’s New York office, added, “Beyond the lies to his clients regarding his investment performance, Valente’s abuse of his fiduciary obligations included the theft of at least $2.66 million in client funds for personal spending, including hefty credit card bills, a vacation home, and jewelry.”

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Valente misleadingly told his clients that he has a 30-year record of investing experience “dedicated to the highest standards of service” and that he founded ELIV Group after leaving the “corporate financial industry” upon concluding there “had to be a better way for clients to achieve financial independence.” What he failed to disclose was that he twice filed for bankruptcy and started ELIV Group only after the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) permanently expelled him from the broker-dealer industry in 2009 for engaging in serial misconduct against numerous customers.

The SEC alleges that Valente and ELIV Group attracted clients by falsely assuring them that the principal amount of their investments was fully liquid and “guaranteed” because it was backed by a large money market fund. Client funds were in fact never guaranteed or backed by any money market funds, and the majority of ELIV Group’s investments were in highly illiquid investments in privately-held companies. Valente and ELIV Group also assured clients that the firm’s books and records were audited independently. However, ELIV Group never had an auditor, and the firm sent clients monthly investment reports in which they actually inflated the monthly returns, assets under management, and client account values.

The SEC’s complaint charges Valente and ELIV with violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5(b) as well as Sections 206(1) and 206(2) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. The SEC is seeking a temporary restraining order to freeze their assets and prohibit Valente and ELIV from committing further violations of the federal securities laws. The SEC seeks a final judgment ordering them to disgorge their ill-gotten gains plus prejudgment interest and pay financial penalties.

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