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Jury delivers mixed verdict on U.S. SEC case against Life Partners

Sarah N. Lynch and Aruna Viswanatha
Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 | 3:55 PM ET

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Life Partners Holdings Inc and its executives were cleared by a jury late Monday on eight of 12 civil securities violations, including some fraud charges, dealing U.S. regulators another mixed ruling as they step up efforts to take cases to trial.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had sought to prove that the Texas-based company, which deals in the secondary market for life insurance, known as "life settlements," intentionally misled investors over nearly four years about core aspects of its business and that its two top executives engaged in insider trading.

The jury found that the company, its chief executive officer and its general counsel committed fraud when they filed misleading statements about Life Partners' revenue recognition policies in two months in 2007.

It also sided with the SEC on less severe charges involving bookkeeping, reporting and certification by the CEO on the company's financial statements.

But the jury dismissed the SEC's more sweeping allegations of fraud in connection with data the company published about its life insurance investment products, and also determined the executives did not illegally trade on inside information.

Both sides were quick to declare victory on Tuesday.

The SEC's enforcement director, Andrew Ceresney, said the agency was "pleased" with a verdict finding "Life Partners and its executives liable for knowingly or recklessly defrauding shareholders."

The company, in a press release, said it had been largely exonerated.

Life Partners' attorney, Elizabeth Yingling, is seeking to have the charges in which the jury sided with the SEC tossed out by the court, because she said that the SEC had told the judge before the trial it did not intend to pursue those claims.

Each side now has several days to submit briefs before the judge will make a decision.

"We are extremely pleased that the jury has exonerated our company, our business practices and the life settlement asset class itself," Life Partners CEO Brian Pardo said in a statement.

The verdict comes after SEC Chair Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor, recently pledged that her trial unit will stand ready to take more cases to trial as part of a get-tough enforcement stance.

The SEC's loss on eight of the 12 claims against Life Partners demonstrates how difficult it may be for the agency to achieve clear-cut victories in complex securities fraud cases.

The Life Partners case has garnered national attention, in part because of the novel investment products at the heart of the dispute between the government and the company.

Life Partners brokers deals in which the holder of a life insurance policy sells the policy to an investor in exchange for a lump sum. The investor then assumes the responsibility for the premium payments and collects the payout on the policy once the insured individual dies.

The SEC's lawsuit, filed in 2012 and amended last year, alleged the company and its executives artificially inflated revenues and profit margins by misleading investors about the life expectancy estimates of the insurance policy holders.

The complaint also alleged that Pardo and general counsel Scott Peden sold Life Partners stock based on material, inside information about the company's use of "materially short" life expectancy estimates.

Shares of Life Partners were up 16.2 percent at $2.97 in late trading on Tuesday, after earlier rising to $3.19, which was the highest level since late June.

The case was the second time the SEC has tried to take enforcement action against Life Partners.

In 1996 the SEC was thwarted after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that fractional interests in "viatical settlements" were not considered securities.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Leslie Adler)

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