Cautionary Tale of Defrauding the Elderly
Two Morgan Stanley investment advisers agreed last week to plead guilty to stealing nearly $500,000 in a set of schemes that took particular aim at their elderly or retired clients, the U.S. Department of Justice charged. One client is in his mid-80s.
Multiple allegations detailed in the federal complaint demonstrate the creative ways that trusting older individuals might be deceived. For example, the Justice Department (DOJ) indicated that college tuition may have been the auspice or motivation for adviser and broker James S. Polese’s alleged fraud to obtain $320,000 from the client in his 80s – labeled Client B in the complaint.
The allegations included that Polese, age 51, knew a $50,000 loan from Client B for his children’s college expenses was prohibited by Morgan Stanley and was “a conflict of interest between the client and his adviser,” said the complaint, which was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Boston.
Polese and Cornelius Peterson, who both live in the Boston metropolitan area, also worked together to divert money from Client A and also a Client B to a failed wind farm investment without their knowledge, the complaint said. A third client allegedly paid inflated fees.
The brazen allegations in this case come amid reports that financial fraud against the elderly is on the rise. Retired people with nest eggs can be enticing targets for scam artists, and the elderly are “likely financially vulnerable” if they are experiencing cognitive decline, one study said. Further, a trusting senior might have more difficulty detecting financial deceptions that involve complex transactions. (Little detail about the clients’ personal situations was disclosed in the court documents.)
Morgan Stanley said that it fired Polese and Peterson in June 2017 immediately after uncovering the fraudulent activities and “referred the misconduct to regulatory and law enforcement agencies.” The two are registered brokers, and the Securities and Exchange Commission was involved in the investigation. The brokers agreed to plead guilty, said a statement from the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts. A plea hearing is scheduled for February 15.
Client A and Client B were involved in the wind farm investment, the complaint said: Client A lost $100,000 after Peterson made “false statements” to his employer “when he signed a form stating that Client A had verbally authorized the $100,000 [wind farm] investment.” Client B, a businessman, was unaware that his funds were being used to support the wind farm, in the form of a loan account that could be used as a collateral backstop to the project, according to the charges. Although the funds were never used, Client B’s money was nevertheless put at risk, DOJ said, and he paid $12,000 in fees associated with the transaction.
Boston attorney Carol Starkey said her client, Peterson, age 28, was a “minor participant” and noted that Polese, who is 23 years his senior, was Peterson’s supervisor. Polese’s attorney did not respond to requests for a comment.
There was also a Client C, a retired paralegal. Here’s how the government said she was allegedly victimized by Polese: an investment fee equal to 1.5 percent of her portfolio’s asset value was regularly withdrawn from her account, but Polese was “fraudulently inflating” the fee, which was actually 1 percent.
Trust, established over the years between an older client and an investment adviser, can play a role in fraud. Client B has been a Morgan Stanley client since the 1980s and Polese’s client for eight of them. Client B had confided to his financial adviser that he planned “to give away substantially all of his assets to charity,” the complaint said.
Federal authorities are seeking that the funds be returned to the victims. The Justice Department’s charges of investment adviser fraud carry sentences of up to five years in prison; bank fraud is up to 30 years.
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