Advisor Insight

Brokers, firms land on FINRA's 'bad guys' list

Sarah O'Brien, special to

Securities regulators have sanctioned a broker-dealer and one of its registered representatives in related disciplinary cases involving the unsuitable recommendation of unregistered securities to clients.

In the first case, the Financial Regulatory Authority found that Securities America in La Vista, Nebraska, allowed one of its brokers to sell preferred shares of an unregistered limited partnership fund without following its own rules for doing adequate due diligence on the product.

A sign for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is seen outside the offices in New York's financial district.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The related case involves the broker, Stuart Horowitz, who was sanctioned for recommending the preferred notes to clients and for engaging in unsuitable trading in the fund.

The cases are included in FINRA's monthly rundown of disciplinary actions taken against firms and individuals for alleged violations of federal securities laws, rules and regulations.

According to FINRA, in 2009 Horowitz failed to adequately investigate multiple red flags about the fund's viability when he asked Securities America to let him sell the preferred shares to customers who already were invested in the fund.

Securities America extended approval to Horowitz before receiving an independent evaluation of the fund, FINRA said.

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According to regulatory documents, from March 2009 through July 2009, Horowitz's branch office in Coral Springs, Florida, converted about $8 million of existing investments in the fund to the preferred shares, which required $2.5 million in additional money from clients.

Horowitz, who was responsible for all but $137,500 of the conversions, received net commissions of $200,000, FINRA said.

In July 2009 the fund, which invested in real estate, started making late payments to investors holding the preferred notes, and by October 2009 it had stopped making payments altogether.

Without admitting or denying FINRA's findings, Securities America consented to both a censure and a $250,000 fine.

One of the cases recently finalized involves a New York firm that FINRA said failed to tailor its antimoney laundering program to its penny stock liquidation business, which caused the firm to miss suspicious trading activity.

Neither admitting to nor denying the findings, Horowitz agreed to a $100,000 deferred fine and a one-year suspension from working with any FINRA member. The suspension ends March 6, 2017.

CNBC reached out to both Horowitz and a Securities America spokeswoman, and they declined to comment for this story.

In a separate and unrelated case, FINRA has permanently banned a broker from the industry for churning customer accounts, engaging in excessive and unauthorized trading and making unsuitable recommendations to customers.

Churning involves trading in and out of securities — often over a short period of time — in a way that serves no purpose for the investor but generates commissions for the broker.

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According to FINRA, Bahram Mirhashemi, who worked for Accelerated Capital Group in Irvine, California, cost clients more than $815,000 in overall commissions by churning their accounts.

Overall, from Aug. 31, 2012, through Jan. 28, 2015, according to FINRA documents, Mirhashemi placed 2,000 trades for nine clients "for which he rarely obtained the requisite authorization from the customer" before making the trades.

Regulators say Mirhashemi's "excessive and unsuitable" short-term equity trades in client accounts cost them more than $665,000 in commissions.

He also consistently spread mutual fund purchases across multiple fund families, according to FINRA, which meant clients did not receive discounted sales charges and cost them more than $150,000 in commissions.

The findings also say Mirhashemi "willfully filed untimely, false and misleading" forms with regulators, along with failing to file required forms to disclose his liens, compromises with creditors and an outside business activity.

Additionally, FINRA concluded that Mirhashemi distributed "materially false and misleading" communications to customers.

Mirhashemi, who agreed to the sanctions while neither confirming nor denying FINRA's findings, did not respond to a request for comment.

His broker-dealer, Accelerated Capital Group, fired him early this year due to the FINRA accusations, according to regulatory records.

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Accelerated Capital declined to comment when reached by CNBC.

Regulators also continue going after broker-dealers for failing to keep a close eye on questionable penny stock trades made in client accounts.

One of the cases recently finalized involves a New York firm that FINRA said failed to tailor its antimoney laundering program to its penny stock liquidation business, which caused the firm to miss suspicious trading activity.

According to FINRA documents, Legend Securities' antimoney laundering program failed to flag deposits — made by at least five customers — of more than 2 billion shares of penny stocks that were soon liquidated. The sale generated about $3.2 million in proceeds, which was almost immediately wired out of the clients' accounts, FINRA said.

Regulators also said Legend missed other red flags regarding customer accounts that engaged in penny stock liquidations, such as evidence of stock-promotion activities timed to coincide with the deposit and liquidation of those promoted penny stocks; clients with problematic criminal, civil or regulatory histories; and transactions involving jurisdictions known to pose high risks of money-laundering activity.

Legend, without admitting or denying guilt, consented to a censure and a $125,000 fine. FINRA also required Legend to hire an independent consultant to determine if the firm's policies, systems and procedures and training are adequate.

Calls by CNBC to Legend's president were not returned.

For the full FINRA report, click here

— By Sarah O'Brien, special to