Aequitas Management’s troubles are mounting as the SEC accuses the unraveling Lake Oswego, Ore.-based asset manager of operating a Ponzi scheme.
According to a complaint filed in the United States District Court, District of Oregon, Portland Division on Wednesday, Aequitas and four of its affiliates allegedly defrauded more than 1,500 investors nationwide into believing they were making health care, education and transportation-related investments when their money was really being used in a last ditch effort to save the firm, with some money from new investors used to pay earlier investors.
The SEC is charging the firm, three of its executives and the affiliates with violations of federal securities laws, seeking permanent injunctions, disgorgement with interest and civil penalties. Some investors announced in February they have launched their own investigation of the firm.
In a statement made last month, Aequitas said it is taking aggressive measures to address the challenges facing the firm and its investors.
“We allege that Aequitas had severe and persistent cash-flow shortages and top executives knew they weren’t using money raised from investors like they said they would, but they refused to disclose the true financial condition, continued to draw lucrative salaries, and roped even more unknowing investors into a losing venture,” said Jina L. Choi, director of the SEC’s San Francisco Regional Office, in a statement.
The SEC alleges that Aequitas and three of its top executives, CEO Robert Jesenik, executive vice president Brian Oliver and former CFO and chief operating officer N. Scott Gillis tried to hide the company’s rapidly deteriorating financial condition, purportedly related to the purchase of student-loan debt from Corinthian Colleges, a failed private for-profit university system.
From January 2014 to January 16, Aequitas raised money by issuing promissory notes with rates of return ranging from 8.5 percent to 10 percent. While some of the money was used to acquire trade receivables in health care, education, transportation and other consumer credit sectors, the SEC alleges that most was sunk into student-loan receivables from Corinthian.
According to the SEC, Jesenik and Oliver continued to solicit millions of dollars from investors to pay Aequitas’s expenses, despite being aware of the company’s “calamitous” finances. Gillis allegedly helped to conceal the firm’s insolvency, aware that Jesenik and Oliver were raising investments that would actually pay operating expenses and earlier investors.
During this period, Jesenik, Oliver and Gillis took home $2.5 million in combined salaries, used the firm’s private jet and attended “posh” dinner and golf outings, the SEC alleges, all with money from investors.
By November 2015, Aequitas could no longer meet scheduled redemptions to its investors. In January and February, the firm cut two-thirds of its workforce and hired a chief restructuring officer.