The Woodbridge Group of Companies was run by a flashy promoter in Los Angeles named Robert Shapiro. Woodbridge marketed promissory notes (which were in reality unregistered securities) to an estimated 7,000 retail investors throughout the United States, including Utah. Investors were told their funds would provide a safe, secured return from short-term real-estate loans.
In reality, investor money was used to fund real-estate purchases made by shell companies run by Shapiro himself, including high-priced luxury homes in Los Angeles according to the SEC lawsuit filed in December of 2017. The SEC alleged that investors received monthly interest checks that were actually funded by money from newer investors, which is a classic Ponzi scheme.
This story about the case appeared in the Wall Street Journal today, and is a follow-up to the WSJ’s fascinating article about the case from February:
By Peg Brickley
Robert Shapiro lived in luxury homes, drove a Porsche and charged $1 million in expenses to Woodbridge Group of Cos. as the business he led teetered on the edge of bankruptcy with securities regulators in hot pursuit.
The money for his lavish lifestyle came from the pockets of thousands of people, from an 89-year-old widow in a memory care facility in Tennessee to ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has accused Mr. Shapiro of running a Ponzi scheme.
“Like many others, I was a victim of Woodbridge and now must deal with the consequences of its bankruptcy,” Mr. Stephanopoulos told The Wall Street Journal. Woodbridge filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 4, a few days after Mr. Shapiro stepped down from the chief executive spot and, according to court papers, spent $16,000 of company money at Macy’s.
He expected to stay on as a $2 million-a-year consultant, but the arrangement didn’t last long: Woodbridge cut ties to him after the SEC sued him and the company for fraud on Dec. 20. Mr. Shapiro denies running Woodbridge as a Ponzi scheme and is fighting the SEC case in federal court in Florida. However, his former company has said it would admit to running a Ponzi scheme, and is providing details with new bankruptcy court filings that sketch a picture of a troubled company with tangled finances.
Woodbridge promised investors safe returns on short-term notes, which were to be secured by valuable real estate in some of the priciest markets in the country, from the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles to Aspen, Colo.
An SEC fraud case filed in federal court in Florida alleges the real estate was bait to draw investors into Woodbridge’s $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Cash that came in from new investors was recycled to pay older investors, according to the civil fraud complaint and bankruptcy court testimony from an SEC expert.
The SEC lawsuit was the culmination of a year-long federal investigation into Woodbridge, which sold unregistered securities, often through unlicensed agents. Securities authorities in Arizona, California, Iowa, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina and Colorado were also looking into Woodbridge, court papers say.
Now in the hands of legal and real estate professionals, Woodbridge continues to operate under the watchful eyes of the SEC and a bankruptcy judge. The first order of business: start selling Woodbridge’s portfolio of more than 130 properties which are estimated to be worth more than $650 million and start paying off investors.
Estimates are that investors could get from 45% to 76% of what they are owed, if things go according to plan in Woodbridge’s bankruptcy proceeding. That recovery estimate doesn’t include what Woodbridge might be able to recover from lawsuits against its ex-chief executive and brokers that sold the notes, court papers say.
Mr. Shapiro invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself during the SEC probe, and in the face of questions from creditors. His lawyer didn’t respond to a request to discuss Woodbridge’s spending.
In addition to paying Mr. Shapiro’s credit card bills, country club dues and other expenses, Woodbridge transferred $3.8 million to his wife, Jeri, in the year before the company’s bankruptcy filing, most of it through a media-buying company she owned, court records show. Others in the Shapiro circle—a nephew, an uncle, a brother-in-law, a stepson—profited as well, according to court records.
Investors such as Mr. Stephanopoulos could also come under scrutiny for possible clawback lawsuits. Mr. Stephanopoulos received $2.5 million in investor payments from Woodbridge in the 90-day period before the bankruptcy, court papers say. By that time, the SEC had gone public with its probe of Woodbridge. Court papers didn’t say how much Mr. Stephanopoulos invested. In many Ponzi schemes, the chief recovery for investor victims is suing other victims on the premise that the financial pain of the fraud should be shared equally.
“I will pursue any valid claims I have and will comply with all proper rulings of the bankruptcy court,” Mr. Stephanopoulos told the Journal.
Lessons to be Learned
Overall, I think there are a number of lessons to be learned from this very large (alleged) Ponzi scheme.
First, regardless of what you are told, Woodbridge Notes are securities under federal and state law. All investments – including the purchase of promissory notes – must be made through a licensed stock broker or registered investment adviser. Insurance salesmen are not able to solicit or recommend these investments unless they have the proper securities licenses. If you want to find out if your “financial planner” or “retirement planner” has a securities license run their name through FINRA’s BrokerCheck database.
Second, there is a reason why it is very difficult to find investments that pay high monthly returns on a consistent basis; it’s just not sustainable. Investments that pay monthly interest at above-market rates are, in my opinion, very likely to be a Ponzi scheme — or to turn into one eventually. There just aren’t many businesses that can generate returns like that on a consistent basis.
Third, if your financial adviser recommends an investment like this make sure he or she has a big errors and omissions insurance policy, because that may be your only way to get your money back.
For more ideas on how to avoid losing money in a Ponzi Scheme, check out my Top Ten Ways to Avoid Losing Money in an Investment Scam.
I am working on a number of cases involving the Woodbridge Group of Companies, if you lost money and would like to discuss your legal options please contact me.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark W. Pugsley, All Rights reserved.