SEC says alleged scammers targeted teachers, retirees

Washington, D.C., Aug. 29, 2011 – The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged two Florida men with operating a Ponzi scheme disguised as a purported private equity fund that fraudulently raised approximately $22 million from more than 100 investors, many of whom were Florida teachers or retirees.

According to the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, James Davis Risher of Sanibel was responsible for handling the fund’s trading operations, and Daniel Joseph Sebastian of Lakeland distributed offering materials and solicited investors for the fund. Risher boasted to investors that he had substantial experience in trading equities and providing wealth and asset management services. In reality, Risher had no such experience but rather a lengthy criminal history, spending 11 of the last 21 years in jail instead of growing a thriving retail brokerage business as he claimed.

The SEC alleges that Risher and Sebastian falsely told investors that the fund earned annual returns ranging from 14 percent to 124 percent by investing in public equity securities through a broker-dealer. They sent investors fabricated account statements indicating such high returns to support their false claims. Only a fraction of the money raised was actually invested, and Risher instead misspent investor funds on such personal purchases as jewelry, gifts, and property in North Carolina and Florida. Risher and Sebastian also paid themselves millions of dollars in phony management and performance fees.

“Risher, who masqueraded as a highly successful equity trader, teamed up with Sebastian to tout sophisticated trading strategies they claimed would generate substantial profits for investors. Instead, Risher and Sebastian used investors’ life savings and retirement nest eggs to line their own pockets,” said Eric Bustillo, Director of the SEC’s Miami Regional Office.

According to the SEC’s complaint, Risher and Sebastian marketed the fund under the names Safe Harbor Private Equity Fund, Managed Capital Fund, and Preservation of Principal Fund. They described themselves in fund offering documents as “two unique individuals” who used their expertise to “create an investment vehicle that would allow investors to capitalize from both bull and bear markets.”

The SEC alleges that Sebastian often solicited his former customers at his prior job as an insurance broker. He primarily pitched the investment opportunity to educators, retirees, and members of several churches in Florida, but also solicited investors in California, other states, and Canada. Sebastian persuaded former customers to roll over money in their insurance and annuity products into the fund. He told them the fund would provide a higher rate of return than they could receive from the products he had previously sold them. At least one investor liquidated an annuity she had purchased from Sebastian and invested the proceeds in the fund.

The SEC alleges that Risher and Sebastian made a number of material false statements and omissions to investors about Risher’s criminal history, the fund’s investment strategy, the fund’s investment returns, the safety of investors’ principal, and the existence of audited financial statements. Risher misrepresented that the fund was registered in Bermuda, and he and Sebastian falsely claimed that the fund was audited annually by a Bermudan auditor. Sebastian verbally told investors during telephone calls and meetings that they would never lose their principal investments in the fund. He even provided some investors with written guarantees from a company he owned that would reimburse any loss. In reality, Sebastian knew that the company had no assets to reimburse investors for losses, making his guarantee meaningless.

The SEC charged Risher and Sebastian with violating Sections 5(a), 5(c), and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder. The SEC further charged Risher with violating Sections 206(1), (2), and (4) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and Rule 206(4)-8 thereunder, and Sebastian with aiding and abetting Risher’s violations of Section 206(4) of the Advisers Act and Rule 206(4)-8 thereunder. The SEC seeks permanent injunctions, disgorgement, and financial penalties against Risher and Sebastian.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, which conducted a parallel investigation of this matter, has filed criminal charges against Risher. The SEC acknowledges the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Postal Inspector Service, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Florida Office of Financial Regulation.

The SEC’s case was investigated by Cecilia M. Danger and Chad Alan Earnst of the Miami Regional Office, and will be litigated by James Carlson.

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