A federal judge has granted new powers to the outside receiver he put in charge of the Par Funding and A Better Financial Plan firms and others that federal regulators accused of investment fraud last month, after the receiver reported resistance to his efforts to obtain financial information from Par founder Joseph LaForte and associates.
The judge also ordered that all “trustees, directors, officers, managers, employees, investment advisers, accountants, attorneys, and other agents” of the companies “are hereby dismissed.”
“Given the difficulties the receiver has encountered to obtain information he needs to adequately preserve the receivership entities’ assets and protect investor funds, the Court finds it necessary to expand the scope of the receivership,” Judge Rodolfo A. Ruiz II of the Southern District of Florida wrote in his order late Thursday.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud charges against LaForte, his wife, Lisa McElhone, A Better Financial Plan founder Dean Vagnozzi, and others on July 27 and won a court order setting up the receivership to track investments and payments. The case was filed in federal court in Florida, where LaForte moved his office in 2017, after six years in Philadelphia.
FBI agents also raided Par offices in Philadelphia’s Old City and LaForte’s luxury homes in Florida, the Poconos, and the Main Line. They found seven firearms at his Lower Merion home and $2.5 million in cash there and at luxury homes he owned in the Poconos and Jupiter, Fla. The charge says his previous felony conviction barred him from possessing weapons.
The agency says investors were told, via KYW News Radio 1060 and Talk Radio 1210 WPHT, free dinners, and other promotions, that they could expect returns of 10% and more per year, plus their capital back at the end of each year, if they supplied cash for Par’s high-interest-rate small-business lending program. But the sellers failed to warn investors of the risks, as required by law, the SEC says, noting that the firms raised at least $482 million from investors ranging from retail-chain-store owners to people saving for retirement.
Lawyers for the companies blame coronavirus shutdowns for Par’s failure to deliver the advertised returns. Monthly checks to investors stopped in April, then resumed in June and July but with revised terms: a lower, 4% yield, with investors’ capital to be returned in small amounts over the next seven years. The firms say that the court’s lockout had blocked them from processing and sending August checks.
In court papers, lawyers for the company said the firms complied with the law, and that it is the SEC takeover that now endangers investors. Attorneys for Par, A Better Financial Plan, LaForte, Vagnozzi, and Montgomery County financial adviser Perry Abbonizio did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the expanded order.
The earlier order appointed Miami lawyer and former federal prosecutor Ryan Stumphauzer as receiver, with the power to “take custody and control” of records and data, and hire lawyers, accountants, and other staff to preserve assets pending further court action.
But in court papers, Stumphauzer told Ruiz that LaForte and McElhone had declined to meet with his staff and refused to answer questions, and that the many lawyers who have helped Par manage its business had been told not to cooperate with the receiver, citing attorney-client privilege. The new order instructs attorneys who have worked for the companies, among others, to cooperate with the receiver.
In a Friday filing, LaForte and other defendants called the SEC’s plans for the receiver to run Par Funding and track its assets “grossly misguided and extremely damaging to investors.” Par “has never lost a dime of investor funds,” they said.
“The SEC is effectively asking this court to take a lawfully operating business — a business with no investor losses — and simply trash it,” they added. If the funds committed regulatory errors, those should be easy to fix, they maintained.
In his filing Friday, Vagnozzi asked Ruiz to release his companies from the receiver’s control. While Vagnozzi estimated that 60% of his business concerns Par Funding, he said he also promotes investments that involve life insurance, real estate, and bets on litigation. Those business lines weren’t under legal scrutiny, he said.
Vagnozzi said that he “has pleaded with the receiver to be able to process the mail” to make payments to investors. Moreover, he said, his clients’ investments in life insurance could founder if he is blocked from paying policy premiums.
He also said he was unaware of any issues with Par Funding and should not be held responsible for any.
The new order gives the receiver, represented by Philadelphia attorney Gaeton Alfano, “all powers, authorities, rights, and privileges heretofore possessed by the officers, directors, managers,“ and partners of the companies, under state and federal law.
Lawyers for Par had sought to avoid any mass firing of employees, arguing that the scores of people who worked at Par needed the jobs and did them well, and that outside contractors weren’t likely to be as efficient. They had also urged Ruiz to wait until next week’s court hearing in Miami before deciding on whether to expand or end the powers granted under his original order.