Rogue Advisors on Parade

A Dover, Massachusetts life broker is going to jail for filing fraudulent tax returns. The broker, Anthony J. May, 62, was sentenced to eight months in prison and a year of supervised release after being convicted for failing to disclose commissions and other income on his federal tax returns. May owned two businesses: a life insurance agency and a life settlement brokerage, both operated out of an office suite in Hingham, Massachusetts. According to IRS investigators, May filed false income tax returns from 2006 through 2009, concealing $735,000 in income from insurance commissions, broker fees, and lease rental payments.

A former life insurance agent from Lubbock, Texas has received a life prison sentence for scamming his senior clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to investigators from the Texas Department of Insurance, Joseph Gaines sold annuities to a number of West Texas senior citizens only to confiscate their payments and use them for his own purposes. One of his victims was a 94-year-old woman who gave Gaines a $700,000 check in return for annuity coverage. However, when her family became suspicious, they called the insurer, which advised them they had no record of the woman’s purchase.

A San Diego life insurance agent submitted a guilty plea in February 2018 for stealing $1.5 million from senior citizens and other clients. The agent sold them various investment funds, but instead of passing their checks to the appropriate investment firms, he used them to buy personal items such as a luxury car, jewelry, and three rental properties.  The agent, Shawn Heffernan, 43, is facing a nine-year state prison sentence after his sentencing on March 7, 2018. According to authorities, Heffernan began his scams by selling clients annuities. However, before the policies expired, he would persuade them to replace the policies with new ones, generating new commissions for himself and surrender penalties for his clients. He also persuaded other clients to cash out their annuity policies and give him the proceeds for investing in other instruments. However, rather than making the promised investments, he pocketed the money, using it to buy a Maserati sports car, jewelry, and real estate. He also used Ponzi techniques to fulfill redemption requests from prior clients with new-client money.


To read more about ethical business practices, visit the Ethics Center at the National Ethics Association, sponsor of EOforLess. 

As a financial professional, you understand why it’s important to maintain a clean compliance record. Without one, it’s hard to grow your business from among today’s skeptical prospects. But do you also know why it’s equally crucial for all of your intermediary firms to be as committed to compliance as you are? Unless your broker-dealer, registered investment advisor (RIA), and insurance field marketing organization (FMO) are as squeaky-clean as you, you may face regulatory trouble down the road.

Here’s the problem. When your intermediary firm has a checkered compliance history, they automatically become the focus of regulator attention. And when regulators become suspicious of your broker-dealer, RIA, or FMO, they tend to also become suspicious of you. This has real consequences for your ability to do business, says Jon Henschen, in a recent ThinkAdvisor.com article.

  • First, intermediaries who don’t comply with regulations or that hire agents or advisors with the same disregard spark extra regulatory sweeps and audits. These will distract their management teams and make it harder for advisors with clean backgrounds to get their business on the books and their compensation processed.
  • Second, the more regulatory scrutiny a firm receives, the more money it will spend on legal and compliance services. These costs will ultimately come out of advisor compensation—out of your wallet or pocketbook.
  • Third, when regulators find evidence of wrongdoing, they often will push for the removal of the responsible parties. If they have long tenure, their leaving will weaken the company’s institutional memory and bench strength. This may not bode well for its ability to compete in the future.
  • Fourth and finally, every time a broker-dealer, RIA, or FMO gets into regulatory hot water, it will generate negative publicity that lives forever on the Internet. As the firm’s reputation weakens, so will yours because you are tied to the firm. It’s hard enough to generate new clients without giving prospects an additional reason to question your integrity.

Solution? Do thorough research on any intermediary firm before joining it. If you’re considering a broker-dealer, conduct a thorough BrokerCheck review to uncover the scope of disclosure events among its registered representatives. Simply go to Brokercheck.finra.org, click on the individual tab, then type in the broker-dealer’s name where indicated. The result will be pages showing all the firm’s registered reps and indicating those with disclosure events. If you see “yes” in the disclosures field, click on “more details” to learn about the person’s infractions.

Now, this process can be unwieldy because there’s no way to retrieve a summary report showing the percentage of reps at a firm with disciplinary issues. Best you can do is scan the individual reports and then click on the “Yes” to see how and why an individual representative got into trouble. However, if you scan the broker-dealer’s registered representative summaries long enough, you’ll be able to see if the firm has dubious ethics.

According to Jim Eccleston of Eccleston Law, as you’re doing this, watch for disclosures that indicate:

  • Serious negligence or financial abuse of clients, including churning, borrowing from a client, forging documents, or selling unapproved products from an outside organization (selling away).
  • A pattern of paying fines for violating industry rules.
  • Personal bankruptcy or other credit-related problems that suggest the representative is financially stressed or has exercised poor financial judgment.
  • Repeated firings from prior broker-dealers and/or working for many different firms in various states over a short period of time.

It’s also important to evaluate a broker dealer’s own compliance record, not just those of its representatives. To do that, return to the main BrokerCheck page, click on the “Firm” tab, and then enter the firm name or CRD# where indicated. Hitting “search” will return the firm’s disclosure history (if any), where you’ll get a sense of its own adherence to industry regulations and business ethics.

You can do the same individual and firm-level analysis for investment advisor representatives and their RIA firms by visiting the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website. For insurance FMOs, your sleuthing will be much trickier because there is no single government agency or database to check. Since FMOs often operate in multiple state jurisdictions, it can be tough to get a handle on how many of their agents have run afoul of the law . . . or whether the firm itself has. Best advice: let Google be your friend.

Hopefully, researching FINRA, SEC, and state insurance compliance records will reveal whether signing with an intermediary firm is risky. If so, doing business anyway might result in you paying more for your E&O insurance. On that basis alone, it’s wise not only to do your due diligence before joining a broker-dealer, RIA, or insurance FMO, but also to take what you find seriously. No point paying more than necessary for your E&O insurance.


For information on affordable E&O insurance for low-risk insurance agents, investment advisors, and real estate broker/owners, please visit EOforLess.com. For information on ethical sales practices, please visit the National Ethics Association’s Ethics Center.

­A Cautionary Tale: After 50+ Disclosure Events, Rogue Broker Finally Gets the Boot

For years, we’ve been preaching to financial professionals about the importance of keeping their compliance records free of black marks. Our argument: that all it takes is one bad disclosure to besmirch your record. And now that sanction reports live forever on the Internet, one event can make it impossible to generate new business . . . for years, if not decades, to come.

However, sometimes we run across news that makes us question this advice. For instance, Financial Advisor IQ recently reported the case of a renegade broker who racked up more than 50 disclosure events over a 14-year-time period, all easily found on his FINRA BrokerCheck record. The fact that the broker operated beyond the regulatory pale for years makes one question whether government agencies are capable of protecting consumers against rogue advisors. In this particular case, the answer, apparently, is no.

The more you learn about this broker’s track record, the more shocking his story becomes. According to Financial Advisor IQ, FINRA recently threw Anthony Diaz, a Pennsylvania broker last registered with IBN Financial Services, Inc., out of the business. But it took him repeatedly selling unsuitable securities to at least 17 clients since 2000 for FINRA to act. To its credit, FINRA ordered him to refund $4.3 million to his clients, including $1 million in compensatory damages, $2.9 million in punitive awards, and $413,000 in legal fees. But it tolerated his behavior for years.

Over the course of his career, Diaz repeatedly made inappropriate recommendations. He pushed clients to make variable annuity exchanges with no reasonable basis. He misrepresented products to clients. He lied about their net worth so he could sell them alternative investments. He deceived his product firms and broker-dealers. He falsified signatures on annuity applications. He also got embroiled in numerous client disputes, including a 2017 complaint alleging he made poor recommendations, had a client sign a blank form, and put false information on their documents.

During his career, Diaz worked for 11 different securities firms and was fired from five of them. Apparently, the broker-dealers didn’t care about his atrocious disclosure history; they were more impressed with his sizable client list. And regulators only got serious about policing him over the last couple years, when FINRA finally barred him and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania securities agencies pulled his license.

But think about the impact he had on those 17 clients—how much they must have worried about losing their money, how aggravated they were filing FINRA claims, how much they shelled out in legal fees. If regulators had done their jobs years ago, clients could have entirely avoided this nightmare.

Now, surely the broker-dealers and the clients themselves share culpability. Why did firms keep hiring and firing this guy? And why did consumers retain the guy when even a cursory BrokerCheck read would have revealed his true nature? His track record should have disqualified him from holding even a janitorial position in the securities business.

So what are the lessons learned from the Diaz case?

  • First, if you’re insurance licensed and refer clients to a broker to purchase securities, please do careful due diligence on that person. Eliminate those with anything more than a trivial complaint in their past. And given the number of brokers who have flawless records, perhaps adopt a zero-tolerance posture regarding customer disputes.
  • Second, encourage your friends, family members, and colleagues to do serious research on potential brokers. The BrokerCheck system is user-friendly. There’s absolutely no excuse for a consumer not to do a deep dive into a broker’s compliance history to see if the person is trustworthy.
  • Third, if you’re securities licensed, supplement your BrokerCheck file with other sources of information your prospects might find useful. For example, give your prospects access to a comprehensive background check on you, available through the National Ethics Association. Also, consider joining the Better Business Bureau. And as long as you don’t have an investment-advisory license, give your prospects the names of several clients who can vouch for your integrity.
  • Finally, as disappointing as the Diaz story is, it highlights the tremendous opportunities financial professionals with clean records have. With so many ethically flawed competitors in the marketplace, those committed to doing business ethically and legally will have a huge competitive advantage over the unethical bottom-feeders. When consumers finish checking you out, they will know you’re the real deal—a financial professional who will serve their best interests and in whom they can place their trust.

To read more about ethical business practices, visit the Ethics Center at the National Ethics Association, sponsor of EOforLess. 

Principled Selling: Why Insurance Professionals Need a Personal Ethics Code

The demands placed on life, health, P&C agents, and investment advisors can be intense. But even worse, they can be in conflict with each other. Your client may want you to do something that your agent or company prohibits. You may wish to do something that ill serves a client. Or your FMO, broker-dealer, or RIA may want you to sell something that you believe will harm a client. How do you resolve all these conflicts? By creating a personal ethics code and committing it to paper.

Having your own ethics code means you’ll know what you stand for. It will remind you of the values and principles you hold dear so that when caught in an ethical dilemma, you’ll have guidance for resolving it. Don’t think for a minute that your ethics code should be a long, complex document. Or that it should be full of legalese or tedious information. Instead, it should be short, high-level, but deeply inspirational.

Now, you may be thinking,

“Why do I need an ethics code when I already do what my compliance department requires?”

That’s a great question, which gets at the difference between compliance guidelines and ethical values. Compliance guidelines are the black-and-white legal requirements you must follow in order to stay in business. They are rules-based and have sanctions attached if you violate them.

Ethics refer to the personal values you bring to your business career. They aren’t the rules a third party demands you follow. Rather, they are the values you voluntarily adhere to because they’re meaningful to you.  And since there isn’t a compliance rule for every contingency, ethical values help guide you in the gray areas between legal requirements.

In fact, we’d argue that the most effective and successful financial professionals combine compliance rigor with ethical principles to create a highly professional operation. Since many agents and advisors are content to just follow the regulations pertaining to their license, those who integrate their ethical values into their business models almost always will achieve a competitive edge.

Now, what should your ethics code look like in terms of format? We hesitate to provide firm guidelines because it should be something that’s deeply meaningful and relevant to you. Printing it on an index card, as a PowerPoint slide or on a sheet of 8 x 10 glossy paper that you put in a frame are all possibilities. The point is, your code should be whatever will be most useful and motivating to you. And if it’s in a form that you can share with clients and colleagues, all the better.

How do you develop this document? Again, that’s a deeply personal matter. But consider following this process:

First, do some brainstorming around the ethical principles that have resonated with you over the years. Uncover them by . . .

  • Writing down the values and principles that make you feel good about your work.
  • Defining the qualities that have allowed you to outshine others in your market.
  • Thinking about your favorite motivational writers, leaders, or philosophers and write down any of their teachings that have stayed with you for years.
  • Considering the teachings or your faith community (if any) relating to how to treat your fellow man.
  • Recalling the life lessons your parents gave you and that you’ve given to your own children.

Second, review your master values list and circle those that have persisted longest, meant the most to you, had the broadest application, and helped you resolve ethical dilemmas in the past. Select perhaps 10 of these statements and type them up on a single sheet of paper.

Third, share your list with four to five people with whom you are extremely close, including work colleagues, friends, and family members. Ask them what they think of your list. Have them pick out the top three or four ethical values that speak most powerfully to them and that reflect your unique character.

Fourth, capture the principles that were selected most often and put them on a single sheet of paper, index card, or however you’d like to format it.

Fifth, let this list “germinate” for a few weeks. Then revisit it to see if you still like the items it includes. Eliminate those that have lost potency for you, and add others that have come to mind since the prior exercise.

Sixth, compile your final ethical principles list and format it as your official Ethics Code. Phrase each statement in the form of a manifesto or a “This I Believe” so that you and the people reading them will know you stand for these things.

Seventh, print out your code in a format that promotes sharing, that’s visible to you throughout your work day, and that makes you feel really good.

Now that you have an Ethics Code, refer to it frequently when faced with difficult business decisions. Always ask yourself whether a potential action tracks with or violates your Code. Then make the appropriate call consistent with your code.

Finally, congratulate yourself for having developed a tool that the vast majority of your competitors lack . . . a highly motivating Ethics Code that will help you become an admired and successful financial professional. It will also discourage unhappy clients from suing you and making you use your E&O insurance. Sounds like a win-win, right?