For federal prosecutors, Sean Meadows is the poster child of investment advisers gone bad and the reason to step up investigations in this area.
In the Meadows case, the U.S. attorney’s office is seeking a hefty 30-year prison sentence for his role in a seven-year, $10 million fraud in which he took client funds to support an opulent lifestyle that included gambling junkets to Las Vegas.
“Meadows utterly devastated his victims,” the government said in a memo supporting its 30-year recommendation. “The defendant knew their vulnerabilities, their struggles, their dreams. … He knew that in stealing their money, he was stealing their futures, futures they had worked their entire lives to build, and leaving them in a far diminished state, many near destitution.”
On Wednesday, regulators and law enforcement cited the Meadows case several times while announcing the establishment of a special task force to investigate and prosecute instances of investment adviser fraud. Meadows pleaded guilty in December.
“The harm of investment adviser fraud is startling and devastating,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger.
The task force includes the U.S. attorney’s office for Minnesota, the Minnesota Commerce Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service, FBI and the inspection arm of the U.S. Postal Service.
“We’re looking for another way to tackle this problem, to get onto fraud earlier with novel ways,” Luger said.
Federal authorities prosecuted 14 investment adviser fraud cases last year, triple the number from each of the previous two years.
State Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said his office has beefed up its investment capabilities over the last several years as complaints and tips about fraud cases came to the department’s attention.
“The victims tend to be seniors and their retirement savings. This is the generation with the greatest amount of wealth, and those doing bad things know it,” Rothman said.
C.J. Kerstetter, assistant regional director for enforcement for the SEC, said his agency can bring civil actions against people involved in questionable investment activity as well as pass along information to federal prosecutors.
“The SEC has been extremely active in Minnesota,” Kerstetter said.
Luger acknowledged that investment adviser fraud is not unique to Minnesota, “yet it is occurring at a startling rate. We had 14 cases last year. That’s a lot of cases.”
The idea for the task force is to share information, work with local authorities and the private sector to look for red flags and detect fraud at its early stage.
Rothman said the Commerce Department already works with professionals such as accountants and doctors to be on the lookout for unusual financial transactions in the accounts of their clients.
In Meadows’ case there were several warning flags, including a tax preparer who questioned the tax returns of some of Meadows’ clients and an insurance company that suspected churning with annuity products. However, Meadows was able to deflect questions by lying and taking his clients elsewhere.
The Meadows case is one the government does not want to see repeated.
“It’s a crime that cannot be overstated,” said Luger.
Meadows is scheduled to be sentenced in June. His attorney is seeking a sentence in the range of eight to 10 years on the grounds, in part, that the government was overzealous in its prosecution of Meadows.
“It is difficult to think of a scheme more elementary than this one,” wrote defense attorney Mark Larsen, describing Meadows as “a remorseful individual.” “Mr. Meadows convinced annuitants to liquidate their annuities and give him the money instead so that he could provide them with higher returns.
“Mr. Meadows was just another gambling-addicted alcoholic [slot machines, mostly] that one sees upon a casual visit to any smoke-filled casino populated with inebriated customers who have themselves lost hope.”