"He likes to educate people and help them make the right decisions against a lot of these crooked, self-serving people in the financial services industry," says Luke Chung, president of FMS Inc., a Vienna, Va.-based software company. "He's gone against a lot of people in the industry about the fees or hidden fees or conflicts of interest people in the industry have that are not in the best interest of the investor."

Chung, who met Edelman through a D.C.-based business owners association, says that Edelman, as an early advocate of ETFs over mutual funds, has helped people of modest means, much more so than others in the profession. The greater Washington, D.C., with its bevy of well-paid, federal government employees enjoying generous benefit packages, provided a perfect market for a firm targeting the middle class and mass affluent.

On his radio show last February, Edelman accused mutual fund giant Vanguard of hiding fees of as much as 1.4% annually. The comment sent investors on the Bogleheads forum, a group of nearly 20,000 investors inspired by Vanguard founder John "Jack" Bogle, into a tizzy. Some on the site went as far as to call Edelman dishonest and self-serving.

Edelman's beef was that Vanguard claimed its total expenses were 0.06% annually, a figure he called "a little disingenuous." He noted that funds incur other costs for trading stocks, such as brokerage costs and soft costs for product placement. And they pay so-called "market impact costs" when their volumes are large, paying a higher price when they buy and a lower price when they sell. These costs can be as high as 1.4% annually, Edelman says.

Vanguard disputed his claim, and Edelman wound up apologizing for his comment in his broadcast the following week. He wasn't saying Vanguard's fees themselves were high, he claimed, but emphasizing the industry average for the hidden costs, a problem inherent in mutual funds.

"I've got almost a billion dollars of client assets with Vanguard. If I was trying to be critical, why would I have so much of my client assets there?" Edelman asked.

Commenters on the Bogleheads forum didn't buy it. One commenter called "davebo" says Edelman is a smart salesman and promoter and knew exactly what he was doing when he made his statements.

"Instead of just flat out admitting that Vanguard fees are low, he tried to cast doubt in people's minds by quoting an industry average," davebo posted on the forum.

A Vanguard spokeswoman says the firm's average fund expense ratio is just 0.21%, or $2.10 for every $1,000 invested. That's far lower than the industry average, which is 1.15%, or $11.50 on every $1,000 invested.

"I would have thought that the Bogleheads would have jumped for joy that one of their best adversaries had seen it their way," Edelman says. "Instead, did you see their site? They were saying things like, 'Did you see how Edelman changed his mind? What a hypocrite.' Some folks just want to criticize. That's fine."

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