The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a new lawsuit alleging fraud by Michael Liberty, the New England developer who the agency says still owes millions to public pension plans in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and New England.
The new case focuses on millions that Liberty raised for Texas-based Mozido, which Liberty founded and partly owned. Mozido has been working on a “digital wallet” to speed wireless payments around the world.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Maine on Monday, alleges that Liberty enacted “a scheme to trick hundreds of investors into investing in his shell companies instead of Mozido,” according to the SEC. “Liberty and his accomplices then allegedly stole most of the more than $48 million raised to fund a lavish lifestyle that included private jet flights, multimillion-dollar residences, expensive cars, and movie production ventures.”
The complaint is “groundless,” said Liberty’s lawyer, Jay Dubow of Pepper Hamilton LLP, of Philadelphia. “The SEC has unfairly targeted him,” and has cost both Liberty and Mozido “a number of business opportunities.”
As part of his Mozido fund-raising campaign, Liberty invited prominent figures including Gen. James Mattis and Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox to meet investors, Forbes reported last year. Mattis, who is now President Trump’s Secretary of Defense, and Fox, now an outspoken Trump critic, haven’t been charged with wrongdoing in relation to Mozido.
Liberty was successful raising money for Mozido from the venture capital arm of Wellington Management Co., which picks stocks for Vanguard Group funds. Other Mozido investors included hedge fund pioneer Julian H. Robertson, United Arab Emirates President Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and prominent Philadelphians including Robert Turner, head of the former Turner Capital Management, of Berwyn. Turner became Mozido’s chairman, but he tells me he’s no longer involved with Mozido.
The SEC does not identify which investors were allegedly defrauded by Liberty and who ended up actually funding Mozido.
Mozido hired a string of veteran payment industry executives, including former Palm and Compaq boss Todd Bradley. Mozido also bought several foreign communications companies, and was listed by Silicon Valley publications among the “unicorn” tech companies with estimated valuations in the billions, but has not attracted a high-priced buyer or listed shares on a stock exchange.
Liberty was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $100,000 by a federal judge in Maine last year for illegal campaign contributions to former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Others accused in the new SEC complaint include Liberty’s wife, Brittany Abbass Liberty; attorney George Marcus; cousin Richard Liberty, and family friend Paul Hess.
The allegations recall earlier fraud accusations against Liberty. Those involve a case settled in 2010, in which SEC officials allowed Liberty to pay just $600,000 of the $6 million he had agreed to refund the Philadelphia city and Pennsylvania state (SERS) pension systems and three New England communities which the SEC said Liberty had defrauded.
Those pension systems had invested a total of $27 million with the former Center City-based Keystone venture capital group, starting in 1997. According to the SEC, Liberty had gained control of the Keystone fund money — and then lost, kept, or gave away much of that cash, pumping millions into unapproved New England real estate and small-business investments in the years before the 2001 stock market crash.
In the initial settlement of those claims, the SEC let Liberty claim poverty and pay a fraction of what he owed. But in 2016, after reviewing complaints by disappointed Liberty employees and investors, the SEC reopened the pension case, alleging that Liberty had been spending lavishly on hotels, restaurants, and transportation with his then-girlfriend, and was beginning to raise millions for Mozido, when he claimed to be poor.
The pension case is due back in federal court in Philadelphia later this month. That case “is still in discovery. We’re confident it will show Mr. Liberty was completely accurate in his disclosures when he made them” before 2010, said Dubow, his lawyer.
The multiple actions against Liberty show he was been able to win new fans and investors despite past troubles that had been documented and publicly reported. As far as the SEC is concerned, “the underlying issues are unrelated, they’re separate [and] distinct cases,” SEC lawyer Michael Callahan told me.
So buyer beware: “The prospect of investing in a nonpublic start-up company may hold considerable allure, but buyers need to understand what they are buying,” said Paul Levenson, who runs the SEC’s Boston office, in a statement with the new charges. “Unscrupulous operators make it difficult for ordinary investors to assess such ‘investment opportunities.’ ”