Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Fraud against seniors is certainly in the news these days. The SEC today filed charges stemming from a $428 million securities fraud that victimized thousands of seniors and other investors throughout the United States. The SEC's action, filed in federal district court in Chicago, Ill., charges 26 defendants and alleges that they participated in a massive fraud that involved the sale of securities in the form of "Universal Leases." The investments were structured as timeshares in several hotels in Cancun, Mexico, coupled with a pre-arranged rental agreement that promised investors a high, fixed rate of return. The fraudulent Universal Lease scheme eventually collapsed, leaving investors with losses that exceed $300 million. The SEC alleges that Michael E. Kelly and those working with him duped thousands of U.S. investors into using their retirement savings to buy Universal Leases on the false promise of safe and guaranteed returns. The SEC alleges that from 1999 until 2005, Kelly and others raised at least $428 million through the Universal Lease scheme from investors throughout the United States, with more than $136 million of the funds invested coming from IRA accounts. The SEC further alleges that a nationwide network of unregistered salespeople who sold the Universal Leases collected undisclosed commissions totaling more than $72 million. For most of the scheme, the complaint alleges, Kelly and his organization used new investor funds raised in the scheme to make illusory "rental income" payments to Universal Lease investors. The SEC also alleges that Kelly and others ran the scheme from Cancun through a number of foreign entities in Mexico and Panama. According to the SEC's complaint, Kelly and others told investors that Universal Leases would generate guaranteed income through the leasing of investor timeshares by a large, independent leasing agent. In fact, the complaint alleges, the leasing agent was a small Panamanian travel agency controlled by Kelly, and for most of the scheme its payments to investors came from accounts funded by money raised from new investors. Further, the complaint alleges that Kelly and the other defendants failed to disclose several key facts about the Universal Lease investment, including the risks of the investment and that more than $72 million in investor funds were used to pay commissions as high as 27 percent to the selling brokers.