It Pays to be Rich – Billionaire Tax Evader Gets Probation

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the call for prison sentence for Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby creator. Warner evaded $5.6 million in taxes but gets to walk away because of his record of charity and benevolence, noticed by U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras.

The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin states that “in a concurring opinion, Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote he believes prison time is appropriate for Warner.” Judge Flaum wrote, “He purposely sought to deprive the federal government of millions of dollars of tax revenue simply to amass more of his enormous wealth.” Others have praised the judge panel of the 7th Circuit for recognizing Warner’s charitable acts that occurred before his wrongful doings.

Warner based his company, Ty Inc. in Oak Brook, IL and gained popularity in the 1990’s with Beanie Babies. He then collected $24.4 million in interest on an offshore bank account in Switzerland from 1996 to 2007. Since Warner failed to report that income in his tax returns, a criminal case against him was made.

In 2013, Warner was then charged with one count of tax evasion for the amount of $885,300 in 2002. Warner pleaded guilty and under a plea agreement, he admitted to evading $5.6 million in taxes from 1996 to 2007. He agreed to pay full restitution and a civil penalty equating to more than 53.5 million.

Warner’s sentence range was calculated to be 46 to 57 months but he asked for probation. Kocoras sentenced Warner to two years’ probation with the condition that he perform at least 500 hours of community service as well as pay a $100,000 fine.


BMO Harris Agrees to Settle in Ponzi Scheme Lawsuit

Unfortunately there are many Bernie Madoff’s in this world who concoct a seemingly endless stream of Ponzi schemes to trap unwitting investors. Most of these schemes prove to be wildly successful, at least initially, so it is unlikely we will see the end of them soon particularly in the current investment environment. With interest rates at record lows, people looking for a better “return” are lured into these schemes that offer above market rates with seemingly little risk.  The fact is that these schemes which appear to be too good to be true are in fact too good to be true.

Ponzi schemes usually work for a while, sometimes for years, with funds contributed by new investors being used to pay dividends or returns to earlier investors. Initially investors in Ponzi schemes usually withdraw their profits to confirm the investment performs as advertised, but then decide to reinvest their “profits” in the scheme, which are shown on fraudulent monthly statements sent to them.  Reinvesting “profits” allows the Ponzi scheme to work as it removes the burden on the scheme operator to actually pay returns to investors.  In today’s digital age it very simple to generate what appears to be legitimate monthly statements that show an investor’s account growing by leaps and bounds, but there is nothing to back up the statement.    Ponzi schemes usually collapse when there is a “run on the bank” with people demanding the return of their investments and profits. In Madoff’s case, the “run” was caused by the 2008 financial collapse which caused people to question how Madoff could still be investing successfully when worldwide financial markets were in ruins.

Victims of Ponzi schemes are not always unsophisticated investors. In one recent case, a Minnesota businessman, Tom Petters, offered hedge funds and other institutional investors the opportunity to earn double-digit returns by making loans to his companies, which he claimed were using the funds to purchase goods that were resold to national retail chains at substantial profits. The problem was there were no purchases or sales, and the entire scheme was based on phony purchase orders and invoices. Billions were invested by these sophisticated parties before the scheme was uncovered and collapsed.  Petters went to jail, but the hedge funds, and the folks who invested in them, lost everything. Not surprisingly, lawsuits were filed against everyone connected to Petters’ scheme, including his banks, accountants, lawyers, and the hedge funds who did business with him (most of whom were themselves bankrupted by the scheme).

Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank recently agreed to pay $16 million to settle litigation tied to the Ponzi scheme which was filed by one of the bankrupt hedge funds that had been feeding Petters’ scheme.  Harris had been sued for nearly $24 billion in connection with accusations that M&I Bank, which Harris acquired in 2011, was complicit in the massive fraud orchestrated by Petters. Harris of course denied the allegations and the relatively small settlement suggests the claims against it were not that strong. The settlement is awaiting approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Our firm is currently exploring potential claims against an auditing firm for a now bankrupt Illinois hedge fund that invested almost exclusively in a Petters company. If you have been caught up in a Ponzi fraud (and you are not alone), do not give up hope.  There are ways to try and recover some of your investment, but it is best to act quickly. Call us if you need help.


Former MF Global Officials Settle in Investor Lawsuit

Our firm is one of six members of an Executive Committee appointed by a federal district court judge in New York to handle multi-district class action claims arising out of the October 31, 2011 collapse of the commodities trading firm, MF Global, Inc.  MF Global was, prior to its collapse in 2011, one of the largest commodities futures brokers in the world, with over 26,000 domestic and international commodity trading customers trading tens of billions in assets.  When the firm collapsed, there was a shortfall of approximately $1.6 billion in customer funds, which the firm was required to hold in segregated accounts for the exclusive benefit of its customers. After several years of litigation, we were able to secure a complete recovery of the missing funds for the firm’s customers through an agreement with the company’s court-appointed trustee. We continue to pursue claims on behalf of the customers and the trustee against the former officers and directors of the firm, including former senator and governor of New Jersey, Jon S. Corzine. Corzine was the company’s CEO, and largely responsible for implementing changes in the company’s business model that lead to its demise.

Recently, Corzine and other ex-directors and officers agreed to pay $64.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit brought on behalf of the shareholders and bondholders of MF Global’s parent company, MF Global Holdings Ltd, formerly a publicly traded company. The settlement ends the suits by the investors against the directors and officers. The investors had alleged that Corzine and other executives made false statements in company securities filings about MF Global’s controls and liquidity. They claimed when the true facts were disclosed, the price of MF Global’s securities declined precipitously.

Whether you are an investor in a large publicly-traded company like MF Global Holdings, or a small closely held or family-owned business, you have rights that you need to protect.  If things do not seem right with the business you invested or have an ownership interest in, your instincts are probably correct. You should take a proactive role and investigate the circumstances. All shareholders, partners, and LLC members have the legal right to review a company’s books and records. If you are uncomfortable reviewing those records, we can help.  Just don’t sleep on your rights.  There are strict statutes of limitations that impact when a shareholder or other investors may bring suits to recover for wrongdoing. Be on your toes. Don’t be afraid to act when you think something may be wrong.


Shareholder Class Action Filed Against Sears

If you are a shareholder in a public or private corporation, a limited or full partner in a partnership, or a member of a limited liability company (“LLC”), you may be interested in a recent class action lawsuit filed by shareholders of Sears against its principal shareholder and CEO Eddie Lampert.

The class action lawsuit was filed by minority shareholders in the once-famous department store recently known for selling the Kardashian Kollection, a clothing line designed by the notorious Kardashian sisters. The lawsuit alleges that Sears Holdings’ plans to strip out and sell its prime real estate holdings – likely the company’s most valuable assets – to a trust controlled by the company’s principal shareholder and CEO Eddie Lampert. The lawsuit claims that the proposed $2.5 billion sale will benefit Lampert at the cost of the company’s shareholders, and lead to the further decline and perhaps demise of the company. Sears cut ties with the Kardashians in late 2014, around the same time of numerous layoffs and 234 store closings, but Lampert remained hopeful that he could revive the company.  The shareholders question whether Lampert is hopeful for the future of the company, or instead for his own future by securing for his own benefit the company’s valuable real estate holdings, which he will be able to lease to other tenants even with the downfall of company’s brand that he represents.

Lambert’s actions raise significant issues regarding his fiduciary responsibility to the company and its shareholders.  A majority or controlling shareholder may not engage in any form of “self-dealing,” which benefits the shareholder to the detriment of the minority or other shareholders. Lambert will have the burden to demonstrate that his proposed action will benefit all shareholders fairly, a difficult burden in most cases.

If you believe you have been victimized by an overly aggressive principal or controlling shareholder, partner, or LLC member, contact us to discuss your options. We are currently representing a minority shareholder in a chain of fast-food Mexican restaurants who has been essentially frozen out by the majority shareholder who for years has been acting in his own self-interests. Although for several years our client sensed that something was wrong, it was not until we were able to secure detailed financial records from the company that the full scope of the majority shareholders’ misconduct was uncovered.  Minority shareholders often feel they have no power to question the majority’s actions, but that is not the case. A fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of all shareholders (and partners and LLC members) exists in all circumstances. If that duty is being breached, there is a remedy. Speak up if you feel something is amiss.  Call us if you need help.