Three retired Philadelphia police officers and a firefighter have filed complaints with the national Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) against Newbridge Securities of Boca Raton, Fla., alleging they were sold “unsuitable securities” by Doylestown investment salesman Austin Dutton and were not properly warned of the risks.
In November and December, FINRA, the securities industry’s self-regulatory body, posted the four complaints against Newbridge, alleging losses totaling over $750,000. In each case the unnamed investors said they were sold “unsuitable securities” and were not properly informed of the risks. Newbridge president Thomas Casolaro did not respond to a call Friday.
Dutton denies wrongdoing, according to FINRA, which considers details of the complaints and the names of the affected investors to be confidential.
FINRA complaint standards “are looser than” court complaints, and often end with no payment, said Gil Boyce, a lawyer at Kutak Rock LP, which represents Dutton’s current firm, Sandlapper Securities.
FINRA approved Dutton’s affiliation with Sandlapper after Dutton settled with Pennsylvania regulators and left Newbridge and a subsequent employer. Boyce called that a sign the agency expects Dutton will comply with securities industry rules. Dutton did not respond to requests for comment.
His clients, including Emil Tofton, a lawyer from the Philadelphia suburbs, said Dutton sold them closed-end real estate funds, including several organized by companies headed by Nicholas Schorsch. Dutton promoted the investments as steady income not subject to stock-market volatility. But investors said the funds lost value and proved difficult to sell when they wanted to get their principal back.
“Typically these are people who come into large sums of money, such as DROP money” — money from the Philadelphia city pension system early-retirement plan, said Nicholas Guiliano, a lawyer who says he represents the police and fire veterans who filed complaints last fall. Dutton marketed his retirement investments to Philadephia police and other city employees.
To invest in the closed-end real estate funds, given the risk investors might not be able to sell them in a timely and profitable way, “they had to sign documents that said they were millionaires. But none of them were,” Guiliano said. “They are retired public servants. [Dutton] is making commissions, Newbridge is making commissions. They are all taking a few percent. It adds up to millions.”
Dutton has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing. He marketed the real estate funds at free dinners and in ads for Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 publications, among other venues. FOP officials have not returned calls seeking comment on their relationship to Dutton.
Last summer, the banking and securities department ordered Dutton to pay $200,000 for “dishonest or unethical practices in the securities business” after he recommended an investment “without reasonable grounds to believe that the transaction or recommendation was suitable for the customer,” according to the settlement agreement.
Newbridge, the brokerage, was ordered to pay a separate, record $499,000 for failing to “maintain a reasonable system for applying and enforcing written procedures” when it could not show it was overseeing Dutton’s sales as required.
Other law firms have posted pages on Facebook and their own websites trolling for Dutton’s clients and offering to represent them in legal actions.
Guiliano expects more complaints as clients grow older and have difficulty selling the investments at a profit: “The chickens have not come home to roost yet.”
He calls overreliance on these investments “reckless, to put 80 percent or 100 percent of a guy’s investments into closed-end REITS,” or non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts, during a period when stock market indexes were going up broadly and investors could have made more money holding popular stock funds.
Dutton is also licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance to sell insurance-related investments. Insurance and annuity salespeople are generally not regulated by FINRA or other securities regulators, which means their sales practices require extra vigilance, Guiliano said.
“They can make 10 or 12 percent a year selling index-option annuities to people who could be paying a small fraction of that” for Vanguard indexed funds or other mutual funds in tax-exempt retirement accounts, he added. “But state insurance departments don’t care.”
Insurers say their annuity products, when used appropriately, help some Americans retire comfortably.
After Dutton and his firm, Bridge Valley Financial Services, affiliated with South Carolina-based Sandlapper last year, that firm’s founders, Trevor Lee Gordon and Jack Bixler, were hit with FINRA fraud allegations in connection to $8 million in alleged illegal markups on Texas oil investments. Their lawyer, Boyce, said they are “vigorously defending” against those accusations.