FBI agents have raided the Old City offices of Par Funding, the firm at the core of an alleged $500 million investment scheme and the subject of a wide-ranging U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission civil complaint.
The agents executed search warrants on Tuesday morning at locations including two Par Funding offices in Old City, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Philadelphia office said.
In the recent sweeping civil complaint against Par and others alleging financial fraud, the SEC relied on at least one recording in which an “FBI confidential source” spoke with one of the pitchmen who raised money from investors in the scheme.
In an unusual move for the SEC, the complaint also repeatedly cited information from undercover operatives posing as investors. “All undercover activity and recordings referenced described in the complaint were done strictly at the direction and behest of law enforcement agencies,” the agency wrote.
Carrie Adamowski, spokesperson for the FBI’s office in Philadelphia, declined to discuss the ongoing investigation, citing FBI policy. No one has been charged with a crime.
The SEC complaint was filed in federal court in Florida against Par Funding owners Joseph W. LaForte, 50, and his wife, Lisa McElhone, 40, formerly of Philadelphia; and Montgomery County resident Perry S. Abbonizio, 62. Among the others named in the complaint was Dean Vagnozzi, 51, a King of Prussia businessman. He is known in the Philadelphia region for his “A Better Financial Plan” radio ads, free-meal seminars, and mailings. He has urged investors to put money into Par Funding instruments.
In a court order made public Friday afternoon, a federal judge in Florida froze Par Funding’s assets at the request of the SEC, blocking the owners from removing up to $482 million in investor money in accounts they control.
U.S. District Judge Rodolfo A. Ruiz also named a receiver with control over the firm’s books and the power to hire lawyers and accountants to oversee the businesses.
The judge found the SEC had shown “a reasonable likelihood” that the defendants “will harm the investing public by continuing to violate the federal securities law unless they are immediately restrained.”
Ruiz also found ”good cause to believe” they might “dissipate, conceal, or transfer” assets unless they were frozen.
In a statement Friday, Vagnozzi’s lawyer Brian P. Miller said that “based on all of the information that Mr. Vagnozzi was provided by Par,” the company “appears to be a legitimate business” in financial trouble due to the financial downturn triggered by the coronavirus.
Vagnozzi, the lawyer said, “hopes the court will allow Par to conduct its operations in a manner to allow it to recover money from borrowers, rather than liquidate and cause losses for everyone.” Vagnozzi’s funds for investors “are a large creditor of Par,” he added.
Miller also said: “This case relates to only one part of Mr. Vagnozzi’s business.”
Attorney Brett A. Berman, representing LaForte, McElhone, and Par Funding did not return calls Friday. Abbonizio couldn’t be reached for comment.
In opposing the SEC’s demands, lawyers for Par Funding said in a court filing that the agency was seeking “to take control of a legitimate operating business” and freeze its assets even before it had a chance to defend itself.
LaForte helped found Par in 2011 after he got out of his prison for two convictions. It lends cash-advance money to small businesses. It then pays investors with a portion of its profits.
According to the SEC, Par charged small businesses up to 400% interest on its loans, told investors the default rate on that borrowing was around 1%, and promised to pay them at least 10% annual interest and to return their principal in only a year.
But earlier this year, investors were told Par could no longer pay that interest rate and that it would take up seven years to return all their principal. The SEC said the 1% default rate was untrue.
A Philadelphia lawyer who has challenged Par Funding in civil court on behalf of borrowers said Friday that he was pleased with the SEC action.
“It’s certainly a victory for the small businesses that have been plagued ... over the last several years,” Shane Heskin said. “They have suffered business failures through [Par’s] predatory tactics.”
In another development Friday, the parent company of KYW Newsradio — where Vagnozzi often had ads pitching his investment strategies — said it would no longer air his commercials.
“In light of the serious allegations in the complaint,” said Entercom, the parent firm, “KYW Newsradio has no current advertising on the air and no plans for future advertising from A Better Financial Plan.“
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an old and incorrect address for the Par Funding office searched by the FBI on Tuesday.