FINRA Expels Firm Over Reg BI Violations
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has expelled broker-dealer SW Financial for “multiple violations” related to Regulation Best Interest.
FINRA found that between January 2018 and December 2021, Melville, New York-based SW Financial and Thomas Diamante, the firm’s co-owner, made material misrepresentations and omitted material information in connection with the sale of private placement offerings of pre-IPO securities in violation of both FINRA rules and Reg BI’s Disclosure Obligation.
Reg BI’s Disclosure Obligation requires broker-dealers and associated persons to provide investor clients “with full and fair written disclosure, prior to or at the time of a recommendation, of all material facts relating to conflicts of interest associated with the recommendation,” FINRA states.
According to FINRA, the firm misrepresented its sales of private placement offerings of pre-initial public offering (pre-IPO) securities to clients, churned accounts and failed to supervise its representatives. (SW Financial recently had 38 registered reps working in four branch offices in New York.)
In a related settlement, FINRA said that it suspended Diamante, for nine months in all capacities followed by a three-month suspension in all principal capacities, fined him $50,000 and required him to requalify by exam if he seeks to register with FINRA as a general securities principal or investment banking representative in the future.
“The serious misconduct in this case exposed customers to significant risk of harm and necessitated expulsion of SW Financial from FINRA membership,” said Christopher Kelly, senior vice president and Acting Head of FINRA’s Department of Enforcement. “Firms cannot make material misstatements or omissions when they sell securities to customers.”
FINRA-registered firms “also must reasonably surveil for, and respond to, red flags of excessive trading and churning. When firms, particularly those with significant disciplinary histories, commit egregious sales practice and supervisory violations, expulsion from FINRA membership may be warranted,” Kelly explained.
SW Financial, FINRA said, informed potential investors that it would receive only a 10% sales commission in connection with its sale of certain pre-IPO securities when, in fact, Diamante had entered into an undisclosed agreement with the issuer under which SW Financial would receive an additional 5% in selling compensation and half of any carried interest (i.e., a share of profits payable to the issuer’s investment manager).
Overall, “SW Financial sold the private offerings to 171 investors, including 163 retail customers, and the firm and its owners received approximately $2 million in undisclosed compensation — a serious potential conflict of interest that could have influenced SW Financial’s recommendations and should have been fully disclosed,” FINRA said.
Diamante and SW Financial also failed to conduct reasonable due diligence on the private offerings and did not confirm that the issuer actually held or had access to the shares it purported to sell.
“As a result, SW Financial had no reasonable basis to recommend the offerings to customers, in violation of both FINRA’s suitability rule and Reg BI’s Care Obligation, which requires broker-dealers and their associated persons to exercise reasonable diligence, care, and skill to, among other things, understand the potential risks, rewards, and costs associated with a recommendation, and have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation could be in the best interest of at least some retail customers,” FINRA states.
FINRA also found that between January 2016 and May 2019, SW Financial, acting through two former reps, churned nine client accounts, causing the customers to incur more than $350,000 in total trading costs and realized losses of more than $465,000.
In one instance, “a retired, 75-year-old customer whose account was excessively traded had a cost-to-equity ratio (or break-even point) of more than 103%, paid $101,806 in commissions, and incurred realized losses of $131,979, which comprised most of his retirement savings,” according to FINRA’s order.
SW Financial failed to reasonably follow up on red flags of the excessive trading in this customer’s accounts, as well as in other clients’ accounts, the regulatory group said.
In settling these matters, SW Financial and Diamante accepted and consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings without admitting or denying them.