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The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday charged four brokers who formerly worked on the cash desk at a New York-based broker-dealer with illegally overcharging customers $18.7 million by using hidden markups and markdowns and secretly keeping portions of profitable customer trades.
The SEC alleges that the brokers–Marek Leszczynski, Benjamin Chouchane, Gregory Reyftmann and Henry Condro–purported to charge customers very low commission fees that were typically pennies or fractions of pennies per transaction, but in reality they were reporting false prices when executing the orders to purchase and sell securities on behalf of their customers.
“The brokers made their scheme especially difficult to detect because they deceptively charged the markups and markdowns during times of market volatility in order to conceal the fraudulent nature of the prices they were reporting to their customers,” the SEC says. “The surreptitiously embedded markups and markdowns ranged from a few dollars to $228,000 and involved more than 36,000 transactions during a four-year period. Some fees were altered by more than 1,000 percent of what was being told to customers.”
The SEC further alleges that when a customer placed a limit order seeking to purchase shares at a specified maximum price, the brokers filled the order at the customer’s limit price, but used opportune times to sell a portion of that order back to the market to obtain a secret profit for the firm. They falsely reported back to the customer that they could not fill the order at the limit price. Meanwhile, the brokers made millions of dollars in illicit performance bonuses based on the fraudulent earnings they were generating on the cash desk.
Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said that “these brokers stole millions of dollars by overcharging customers for trades involving stocks with high trading volumes and price volatility, which are characteristics they wrongly thought would conceal their illicit pricing scheme. They underestimated the SEC’s ability and resolve to pursue such illegal schemes.”
In a parallel action on Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced criminal charges against Leszczynski and Chouchane. Condron has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
According to the SEC’s complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan, the brokers were employed at an interdealer broker firm. The SEC explains that interdealer brokers typically operate only as agents and execute large volumes of securities trades on behalf of customers for low commissions. “The cash desk where these brokers worked executed trades in U.S. and Canadian stocks, and customers were primarily large foreign institutions and foreign banks. The firm’s internal records show that customers were to be charged flat commission rates between $0.005 and $0.02 per share.”
The SEC’s complaint alleges that the scheme spanned from 2005 to 2009. Reyftmann, Chouchane, and Leszczynski were sales brokers on the cash desk who were responsible for finding customers, developing relationships, and taking orders from customers. Reyftmann supervised the cash desk. Condron was a sales trader and middle-office assistant on the cash desk who entered orders received from the sales brokers and ensured the orders were executed.
The SEC also alleges that the brokers’ scheme enriched not only the firm but themselves as well. “The four brokers received substantial performance bonuses totaling more than $15.6 million based, in part, on the fraudulent earnings generated by the cash desk,” the SEC says.
The SEC alleges that the fraudulent scheme worked as follows:
- Leszczynski, Chouchane, or Reyftmann received a customer order by phone, instant message, or e-mail and gave the order to Condron, who executed the trade.
- Condron recorded the actual execution price on the trade blotter and informed the sales brokers of the execution.
- Shortly after the trade was executed, Leszczynski, Chouchane, or Reyftmann examined other market executions around the time of the actual execution to determine whether the stock price fluctuated.
- If the stock price’s fluctuation was favorable to the firm and sufficient to conceal the fraud from customers, the sales brokers instructed Condron to record a false execution price in the gross price field on their internal trade blotter.
- Leszczynski, Chouchane, Reyftmann, or Condron then reported the false execution price and the commission to the customers.