Former Morgan Stanley Broker Sues Over Arbitration Policy

A former broker at Morgan Stanley has filed a class-action race-discrimination complaint against the company, accusing it of making “an end-run around the civil rights laws” with a new policy that bars employee participation in class actions and forces civil rights claims into private arbitration.

Kathy Frazier said in her complaint that African-Americans were underrepresented in the ranks of brokers at Morgan Stanley and were paid “substantially less” than their counterparts.

Ms. Frazier previously worked at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and has an economics degree from Amherst College and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I wrote about Morgan Stanley’s new policy for The New York Times DealBook. You can read the story here.

S.E.C. and First Eagle Investment Reach $40 Million Settlement

The Securities and Exchange Commission said on Monday that it had reached a $40 million settlement with a New York-based investment adviser over charges that it had improperly used mutual fund assets to pay brokerage firms for the marketing and distribution of its funds.

The case against the investment adviser, First Eagle Investment Management, is the first brought against an asset manager under an SEC initiative that aims to protect fund shareholders from paying for marketing expenses that should come out of the firm’s own assets.

I wrote about the settlement for The New York Times DealBook. You can read the story here.

Years of Overlooked Red Flags Catch Up to Stockbroker

Finra, the securities regulator that’s funded by Wall Street, got some attention last week when it said it was getting tougher on bad stockbrokers. The regulator said fines were going up and sanctions for fraud and the sale of unsuitable products were getting more onerous.

But Finra already had sanction guidelines that might have come to play in the case of Jerry A. Cicolani, Jr., a former broker who worked at Merrill Lynch and at Cleveland’s PrimeSolutions Securities Inc. Somehow, though, despite having been target of 69 customer complaints over the past 13 years, Cicolani wasn’t barred from the business until last September.

By that time, criminal authorities already were moving in with an investigation into his role in a Ponzi scheme. On May 1, he pleaded guilty to two criminal counts, including the sale of unregistered securities. He persuaded many of his former clients from Merrill and PrimeSolutions to invest in that scheme. I wrote about Cicolani in my story yesterday for The New York Times. You can read it here.

Antilla 2015 Awards

Earlier this month, the New York press club The Society of the Silurians said I’d won its “Excellence in Journalism” award for my online columns for TheStreet.com.

From the judges: “In these searing columns, Antilla highlights the anti-consumer sentiment that has taken hold of significant portions of the Republican Party as it attempts to distance agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

My stories also have been entered into the national competition for The National Federation of Press Women, which said this week that I’d won first place in two of its “at-large” contests, which include 27 states that don’t have direct affiliations with NFPW. One winning entry was for my columns for TheStreet about the fleecing of senior citizens by stock brokers. A second winning entry was in the feature category, for my article in The New York Times about sex discrimination at Sterling Jewelers, the biggest retail jewelry operation in the United States. The winners in the “at large” categories have been entered into NFPW’s national competition.

Internal Memo at Sterling Jewelers: Men Make 12.5% More Than Women

In the ongoing gender discrimination case against Sterling Jewelers, owner of Kay Jewelers, Jared the Galleria of Jewelers and 10 other chains, an arbitrator this week released a 118-page opinion that moves the fight to a new stage and reveals new information about pay disparities and sexual harassment.

Kathleen Roberts, a former U.S. magistrate judge and an arbitrator at JAMS in New York, said that the women may proceed as a class with their claim challenging Sterling’s pay and promotion practices. She declined to let them proceed with another claim of intentional discrimination.

Because it’s private arbitration, most of the documents are not public. But the law firm for the women was permitted to post Judge Roberts’ opinion so that the thousands of women in the class would have details about this next stage in their case.

The judge referred to several internal company memos that show that Sterling has been aware of pay disparities between men and women for years. From my story in The New York Times on Feb. 3:

In her ruling, the judge cited an internal company memo from 2006 that said female hourly sales employees made 40 cents less an hour than their male counterparts on average, adding up to more than seven million annual affected hours. A memo the next year said that men at Sterling’s stores, which include Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, were paid 12.5 percent more base pay than women and that women at the management level were getting higher performance scores but receiving lower pay increases than men.

The judge also talked about evidence of sexual harassment. More from my NY Times story:

Women in some cases were expected to undress publicly at company events and “accede to sexual overtures,” the judge wrote. She cited evidence of “references to women in sexual and vulgar ways, groping and grabbing women” and soliciting sexual relations, sometimes as a quid pro quo for job benefits.

You can read my story here. The judge’s opinion is here. And a story that I wrote for The Times about the case last year is here. Sterling has 1,700 stores in all 50 states. Chances are you’ve done business with some of these guys at your local mall.

In Push for Change, Finra Is Opposed by the Wall St. Firms It Regulates

Brokerage firms are up in arms over a proposal by one of their regulators to collect information about customers’ accounts and use it to keep tabs on salespeople.

That may sound like a great idea on the face of it, but the regulator in question, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, gets its funding from the firms it’s supposed to be regulating. And those firms don’t like the idea of sharing data on their customers’ buys, sells and portfolio positions.

I wrote about the battle between Finra and its members in The New York Times today. Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, told me that Finra’s proposal to get monthly data about activity in investors’ accounts could go a long way in preventing fraud because it would let Finra jump on problems more quickly:

“It creates a real deterrent,” she said. “Who’s going to churn an account if it immediately sends off a warning siren at Finra?”

You can read the story here.

Brokers Countersue to Thwart Suits by Unhappy Investors

So your broker sold you some shoddy private placements and you sued? Brace yourself, because you might get sued back.

In The New York Times today, I told the story of investors who sued their brokers for selling them private placements that tanked only to be hit with a suit from the broker. The firms’ argument: That the customers signed indemnification agreements when they purchased the securities, and thus owe the firms money for legal fees and other costs.

“The investors make representations to buy these things” and have a legal obligation to be truthful, said Vincent D. Louwagie, a Minneapolis lawyer who represented the brokerage firm Berthel Fisher.

It’s tough to evaluate the cases when the firms win. If you do business with a brokerage firm, you are stuck in private arbitration, where nobody has to explain how they came up with a decision. Suffice it to say, though, that a lot of customers will get spooked when they find out they’re threatened with a countersuit after they already have lost money. You can read the story here.

Why Jordan Belfort’s ‘Sucker List’ Won’t Be Released to ‘Inside Edition’

The list of investors who got fleeced by convicted felon Jordan Belfort, aka “The Wolf of Wall Street,” would be gold in the hands of financial crooks, and that’s why a federal judge in Brooklyn told the producers of “Inside Edition” in June that he wouldn’t hand it over to them.

“It’s pretty well known in the fraud world that the best list to get is the list of people who have already been taken,” Doug Shadel, an expert on fraud schemes and the elderly at AARP, told me in an interview.

In my story for The New York Times DealBook last month, I looked at the ways that financial criminals find and fleece their victims. You can read the story here.

New Evidence May Reopen Broker Fraud Case

You may recall the bizarre story of the Long Island stockbroker who hoodwinked the producers of the Broadway show “Rebecca” into thinking he’d lined up millions of dollars for the show. The producers put up $60,000 and the broker, Mark C. Hotton, put the money in his pocket.

It was a strange tale in many ways, not the least of which was that Hotton had been fleecing investors of millions of dollars for years before he wound up in headlines for picking up a paltry $60,000 from the show biz chumps.

I nearly choked when I read that Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had said in a press release that the FBI had uncovered Hotton’s misdeeds “with lightning speed” in 2012. Hotton had been fleecing people ever since he forged documents and bounced a $31,550 check to buy some used cars in 1990. That’s some pretty slow lightning.

In my story for The New York Times last week, I wrote about the latest twist in Hotton’s story. His former employer, Oppenheimer & Co., had been ordered by arbitrators to pay out only $2.5 million of the $5 million that a married couple had lost at Hotton’s hands. Then, six months later, their lawyer discovered evidence that the firm had held back a smoking gun. Read about it here.

 

About that Reformed ‘Wolf’ of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort, who did jail time for fleecing investors at Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island brokerage firm he founded, has put himself out there as a reformed man. Indeed, he has been making money legitimately, giving speeches to audiences enthralled with the idea of spending an hour or so in the same room as a convicted felon who claims to have seen the light.

Belfort is, of course, the author of the 2007 book “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio (playing Belfort) that was released last month. He’s taken to social media to inform the public that he’s a good guy who is giving all the movie proceeds back to the investors he defrauded. But the prosecutors who put him in jail say he’s not telling the story just right. I write about it in my story today in The New York Times.

 

 

Is Your Stockbroker Smart Enough to Understand the Product He’s Selling You?

Brokerage firms spend big bucks on TV and print ads that depict their stockbrokers as informed, sophisticated professionals who are looking out for clients. So it might come as a surprise to know that when investment products blow up, brokers have been known to complain that they had no way of knowing that the product was bad.

In my story for The New York Times tonight, I show how brokers wiggle out of responsibility  when they sell customers a product that turns out to be garbage. You can read the story here.

Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie

You’ve seen the trailers.  A convicted stock fraudster played by Leonardo DiCaprio parties it up on his 170-foot yacht and entertains his office of crooked stock brokers with a half-naked marching band that celebrates the group’s  latest money haul from their clueless clients.

Paramount’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a 3-hour movie that opens Christmas Day. I saw a screening in New York on Wednesday night. The mostly 30-something crowd loved watching the hard-partying life that comes when you perfect a method to steal from the public.

My prediction: Young people will be wowed by DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, just as they were by Michael Douglas aka Gordon Gekko (remember “Greed is Good?”) in the movie “Wall Street.” Douglas said in this story that he was “shocked” that young people decided to work on Wall Street after watching him play a Wall Street bad guy.

Ask your college-aged kids what they think when they see the movie, and let me know.

It was sort of bothering me that amid all this hard partying and cocaine-snorting that nobody had bothered to mention that people actually got hurt by the funny brokers who throw midgets at a bullseye for fun. Thus, my story in today’s New York Times: “Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie. You can read it here.

Black Marks Routinely Expunged from Brokers’ Records

Stock brokers who settle with an aggrieved customer are able to get the go-ahead to delete the customer’s complaint from their records almost every time they ask, according to a study released Oct. 16. I wrote about it in today’s New York Times.

To understand the history of these broker shenanigans, take a look at an earlier story that I wrote for The Times on June 10: A Rise in Requests From Brokers to Wipe the Slate Clean.

It’s a topic I’ve been watching for some time. Eleven years ago, brokers were on an earlier push to make their bad records look good, and I wrote about that for Bloomberg Markets Magazine — How Wall Street Protects Bad Brokers. So when Wall Street’s self-regulators at The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (Finra) tell you this problem emerged in 2009, consider this article from 2002:

Schwab Case Could Mean Even Fewer Chances for Investors to Get Into Court

If you’re an investor who’s lost money at the hands of a broker who may have broken securities laws, you are pretty much stuck. In 1987, the Supreme Court said in Shearson v. McMahon that a brokerage firm had the right to force investors to forego court — and instead use industry-run arbitration — in the event of a grievance. Brokers did that by including a so-called “mandatory arbitration” clause in their customer agreements.

That means no public filings, no judge, no jury and no members of the public permitted in your private courtroom. Once the McMahon ruling came down, virtually every brokerage firm raced to add a mandatory arbitration agreement.

The only way since then that the investing public could get before a judge and jury has been in egregious cases where multiple investors claim to have been ripped off in the same way — a class action. Those cases, up to now, have been allowed to proceed in public view.

In 2011, though, Charles Schwab & Co. added a provision to its customer agreements saying that its clients couldn’t partake in class actions, either. Finra, a regulatory organization funded by Wall Street, objected to that. I write about what it all means in my story tonight for The New York Times. You can read it here.

Ten women, one man, get laid off. One of the women sues for bias, and (surprise) loses in court

Rochelle Cohen was fired from her job as a portfolio officer at Bank of New York Mellon on September 20, 2010. So were 9 other women. And one man.She sued the bank and went to trial in Federal Court in New York on July 23. After less than a day of deliberating, the jury ruled for the bank. Here’s my story about the case for The New York Times.

Jury Largely Sides With Bank in Madoff-Related Case

A Hartford jury said Wednesday that the Connecticut bank that was custodian for two investors in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was not liable for their losses.

I wrote about the Alice-in-Wonderland-style trial in a story for The New York Times on July 8. The bank’s former president said he didn’t know what due diligence the bank might have done to be sure the customer’s assets existed, and didn’t know how the bank maintained accurate records. The president, who’d been in the banking business for 36 years, had a degree in finance from Georgetown University.

Another doozy in the trial was the bank’s former custodial manager, who said he would get three or four “very thick envelopes” of trade confirmations from Madoff some weeks. He put them in a file drawer and never reviewed the documents. (Except that he occasionally took a peek because he was curious about what Madoff might be buying or selling, but not curious enough to do any checking on behalf of the bank’s customers.)

The Hartford trial began in June as a consolidation of three lawsuits with similar allegations. But two of those cases settled for $7.5 million just before the jury began its deliberations, leaving the jury with only the case of two elderly Florida investors to decide. You can read my story about the verdict today for The Times here. Take a lesson from this: When a financial outfit tells you it is your custodian, don’t make the mistake of assuming that means they have custody of your money.

Custodians don’t always take custody: investors beware

Custodial banks typically earn their fees based on a percentage of the value of the assets they’re holding for you. But do they have any obligation to confirm whether there are any assets there in the first place?

A Hartford jury is deliberating over that and other questions in a case brought by former customers of Bernard Madoff. Westport National Bank was custodian of the investors’ accounts. But, as it turns out, when the bank took over the accounts in 1999, no assets existed, and the bank didn’t bother to check.

The custodial issue is becoming ever-more important as investors increasingly put “alternative” investments such as hedge funds in their retirement accounts. Pricing those investments can be dicey, and you shouldn’t expect that your custodian is doing any analysis to ensure that the prices they show on your statements are realistic.

I attended several days of the trial against Westport National Bank in Federal court in Hartford in June. Here’s a story I wrote about it for The New York Times.