Top officials of Par Funding have agreed not to fight the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s demand that a receiver continue to run their Philadelphia lending company until they face a civil trial on charges of orchestrating a $500 million fraud.
The firm, along with the business of King of Prussia financial adviser Dean Vagnozzi, one of several outside salesmen who drummed up investors for the company, was put under the control of an outside receiver last month due to a temporary restraining order issued by a federal judge. The judge, Rodolfo Ruiz, sitting in Florida, is to rule by the end of next week on the SEC’s call that he extend the order.
One of the Par Funding officials to drop opposition to the receivership was Joseph W. LaForte, an owner and founder of the company. He is behind bars, awaiting trial in an unrelated case — federal authorities have charged him with illegal possession of firearms. His lawyer has filed new court papers seeking to have him released until that criminal trial.
The receiver, Miami lawyer Ryan Stumphauzer, has rehired a few Par Funding employees to help collect loan money owed by hundreds of small businesses. Under the firm’s business model, it raised $492 million from investors, until recently paying them 10% or more in interest, and lent the money out as cash advances to merchants who paid it back at interest rates averaging 50%.
The receiver’s office has said only that it will resume Par’s collections — a crucial step toward paying back investors — but that it will no longer accept new investors or make new merchant loans.
“We want all 70 employees rehired, so we can get the company up and running again,” Bettina Schein, lawyer for Joseph Cole Barleta, Par Funding’s chief financial officer, said in an interview Thursday.
In its sweeping complaint, the SEC said Par Funding sold promissory notes that were not properly registered, audited, or insured. The agency says the company misled 1,200 investors about the risk they faced and hid from them the fact that LaForte was a twice-convicted felon who used aliases.
Lawyers for Par owners and operators say that they followed the law, and that the SEC’s actions risk damaging the business and could delay or kill the payment of returns to investors.
LaForte and Barleta joined three other defendants in dropping their opposition to letting the receiver stay on the job until a trial is held, according to documents filed in the case Thursday. In his consent agreement, Barleta also agreed the court could continue to freeze $5.5 million that the SEC says he received from Par.
SEC senior trial counsel Amie Riggle Berlin said in a court document that the actual filing of LaForte’s consent “will take several days due to Mr. LaForte’s current location.” He has been imprisoned at the Federal Detention Center at Seventh and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, just four blocks from Par Funding’s Old City offices, since his Aug. 7 arrest on federal firearms charges.
Pursuing what prosecutors have described as a long-running investigation into LaForte and his business network, FBI agents found seven firearms in homes he and his wife own in Lower Merion, the Poconos, and Florida. As a convicted felon, LaForte is barred from owning firearms. He has maintained that the guns belong to his wife, Lisa McElhone, also an owner of Par Funding.
A federal judge ordered LaForte detained without bail until trial, citing prosecution arguments that he was dangerous and a flight risk. But LaForte’s defense team, in court filings this week, called a prosecution claim that he threatened to flee the country in his private plane and hide millions in untouchable offshore accounts “implausible and inaccurate.”
His lawyers wrote that it was undercover FBI agents posing as business owners who suggested a Caribbean escape in a July 22 dinner meeting with LaForte and Perry Abbonizio, a part-owner of Par Funding.
One of the agents named the island of Nevis as “a great place to put money,” according to a partial transcript included in the defense filing.
“You’re crazy,” LaForte replied, according to the partial transcript. “I’ve never heard of the place.”
LaForte’s lawyers also dismissed as “patently false” claims by “disgruntled” small-business owners who owed Par money that he had threatened to blow up a house and to put a borrower in “cement shoes.”
To make LaForte’s case, the lawyer pointed to a section of the transcript where LaForte said he welcomed a crackdown in New York state on “criminal” lenders.
”Those guys were threatening people,” he told the agents. “They have to have compliance. That’s an outlier. … That’s like a priest going rogue in a church.”
LaForte and Barleta joined three other defendants in the lawsuit who previously had dropped opposition to the injunction. They were Abbonizio of Montgomery County and Florida-based investment salesmen Michael C. Furman and John Gissas. They all deny wrongdoing.
That leaves McElhone and Vagnozzi, owner of a business called A Better Financial Plan, as defendants who have yet to agree to the injunction.
Talks between McElhone’s lawyers and the SEC continue. Vagnozzi is trying to convince authorities to give him back control of A Better Financial Plan, so he can service clients whose investments he says are unrelated to Par.
Receiver Stumphauzer and his lawyer, Gaetan Alfano, and staff are reviewing the books at Par and Vagnozzi’s company and are scheduled to report findings Monday.