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Investors who made ‘alternative’ bets through Par Funding are facing deep discounts

Par receivers and Pillar administrators can't yet say how much investors will get back

In this 2013 photo,  Montgomery County financial adviser Dean Vagnozzi stands in a room at Ruth Chris Steakhouse in King of Prussia, where he has pitched potential investors about putting their money into life settlements.
In this 2013 photo, Montgomery County financial adviser Dean Vagnozzi stands in a room at Ruth Chris Steakhouse in King of Prussia, where he has pitched potential investors about putting their money into life settlements.Read moreNorristown Times Herald / File

Investors who responded to a drumbeat of Philadelphia radio ads that led them to believe they could beat the stock market with “alternative” investments are now praying they just get back the savings they invested.

A court-appointed receiver hunting for assets of Par Funding, a Philadelphia lender sold by radio pitchman Dean Vagnozzi and others, now says that, so far, he has found just $130 million to repay the $248 million that Par owes hundreds of investors.

That would be enough to repay only about 52 cents for every $1 that investors put into Par, let alone deliver what investors were told were possible returns of 10% and more.

The receiver had separately reported that a life-insurance settlement investment also marketed by Vagnozzi, a King of Prussia salesman, shows a “fair value” equal to about 80 cents for every $1 invested.

“Wow, it’s not looking good for us to have a fair return on our investment,” said Montgomery County investor Dale Hood after reviewing the report on Pillar 8. He and others put money into life insurance policies once held by the elderly, betting on a big payout upon the sellers’ deaths.

Federal regulators persuaded a federal judge to put both Par and Pillar funds in receivership last year when they filed a sweeping civil fraud case against Par and Haverford owners Joseph LaForte and Lisa McElhone, as well as against Vagnozzi and other salespeople.

The suit accuses LaForte and McElhone, who are married, of improperly taking more than $100 million out of Par Funding before it defaulted on payments to investors last spring. The regulators fault the couple, along with Vagnozzi and others, of failing to warn investors of the risks of investing in Par.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says the couple also hid LaForte’s criminal fraud convictions from investors. Vagnozzi has said he did not know about them.

The defendants deny wrongdoing and say the government action itself has been destroying their enterprises. The case is to go to trial in November in Florida, where LaForte and his wife have one of several luxury homes.

The judge later released the Pillar funds and others accounts managed by Vagnozzi from a freeze imposed as part of the receivership. And the funds later resumed payments to investors, though in the life-insurance settlement investment’s case they remain smaller and slower than expected.

The fair-value estimate applied to one life-insurance settlement fund, known as Pillar 8, among a group of such funds group marketed by Vagnozzi. Eric Lechtzin, a lawyer for more than 100 investors suing Vagnozzi and his former lawyer, said he hopes the estimate was a “worst-case scenario” and that the investors would eventually collect more. Vagnozzi helped raise more than $30 million for the non-stock market investment, according to filings.

Vagnozzi has said that “terrible” — inaccurate — forecasts of how long people would live undermined Pillar. This forced investors to pay years of extra premiums to keep the policies from lapsing.

As for Par, defense lawyers say that the receiver, lawyer Ryan Stumphauzer, should try harder to collect loans from Par’s borrowers in order to repay investors.

Par made loans to small businesses and charged exorbitant fees, according to the SEC. Further, the owners and brokers are accused of failing to warn investors of the true loan losses, falsely saying its loans were insured, and claiming that it would maintain investor yields of about 10%.

But accountants and lawyers for the receiver say many of the borrowers are broke.

Stumphauzer has been searching for still more properties bought by Laforte and McElhone and other Par owners with the millions that the SEC says they extracted from Par.

Most recently, he won court approval to add LaForte and McElhone’s 24-foot Cherubini speedboat, as well as paintings and other movable assets, to the long list of items he has seized under court order. This material may be sold to raise cash for investors if the SEC case is successful.

In all, Stumphauzer has seized about $130 million in assets, almost half of which is made up of dozens of properties in Philadelphia and resort communities from the Poconos to Florida, plus a corporate jet, fancy cars and other assets. The remainder is cash.

The defendants are contesting the seizures. They say they acted legally and are entitled to their money and purchases.

In the last three years, Vagnozzi paid fines totaling over $1 million to securities regulators who challenged his marketing practices and said he should have registered the funds as securities. He has not been convicted of breaking any law.

Last fall, he agreed to sell or transfer his financial interest in funds other than those tied to Par Funding and that his business would no longer manage them.

Vagnozzi told U.S. District Court Judge Judge Rodolfo Ruiz, presiding over the civil case, that if there were laws broken by Par’s owners, he, like the investors, was a victim.

He is no longer advertising on the radio.