Allegations of trolling a millionaire dating site to defraud wealthy women has landed a venture capital company and its officers and directors in the center of a lawsuit alleging securities fraud in California.
The firm of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP filed suit Tuesday in the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego alleging the principals of a venture capital operation, VentureMoney Management Co., defrauded a woman of $600,000 on the dating website MillionaireMatch.com. The firm seeks the return of her money, interest, costs and attorneys’ fees.
VentureMoney Management, a Delaware incorporated organization, has a registered Form D with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The lawsuit alleges 12 violations, including securities fraud, sale of unregistered securities, operating as unlicensed broker and as an unlicensed investment advisor and aiding and abetting a fraud.
Mark Bernier of VentureMoney Management, the complaint states, “trolls dating websites for vulnerable, high-net-worth women as part of his investment scams.”
The complaint alleges that Bernier “advertises himself as a licensed investment professional, targets wealthy women, attempts to build trust and confidence, and then aggressively seeks to separate the women from their money through purported ‘investments.’”
In implementing this fraudulent scheme, the complaint states, “Bernier directly violates state securities laws. In the past two years, Bernier has exchanged over 29,000 messages with over 3,000 women through the dating website MillionaireMatch.com, in an effort to sell them worthless securities.”
The plaintiff, Marieme Bouguerba, had filed individually against VentureMoney Management CEO Mark Bernier, who allegedly targeted her and her money on the dating website with a solicitation to invest her money in a fraudulent scheme. Bernier presented himself on the dating site as a licensed investment professional to gain the trust of the woman in order to make a sale. All the while he would “falsely” promise to return her money, according to the complaint.
As a result, Bouguerba was left “holding nothing but blue sky,“ according to the suit. Instead, Bernier kept the money as a management fee for himself and for VentureMoney Management without investing it, the suit alleges.
The lawsuit is not limited to Bouguerba — the amended complaint alleges Bernier exchanged thousands of messages with more than 3,000 women over a two-year period. It encompasses in its charges Bernier and his affiliates, the officers and directors who allegedly “lent credibility to Bernier’s scheme by permitting him to exploit their names, faces and investment expertise in marketing materials and pitch books, which contained materially false and misleading information.”
In addition to Bernier and VentureMoney Management, the companies VMC Holdings LLC, Casco Bay Capital LLC and individuals Paul Turino, Alan Maiss, James Jalil, John Zoraian, Greg Zoraian, Greg Doyle, Paul Roben, Roger Rappoport, Nishal Mohan and Mario Diez are named as defendants.
The directors and officers “turned a blind eye and allowed Bernier to exploit their likenesses and reputations, which aided and abetted his illegal securities and investment advisory transactions,” according to the filed complaint. It notes they also would benefit through funds raised through VentureMoney Management Co.
Bernier is also listed as the executive chairman of ThinkTank Innovation Inc., described as a public/private partnership “in the heart of San Diego,” according to its website. Some of the defendants named in the amended complaint are also listed as the executive board of ThinkTank.
For example, Mario Diez is named as a trade commissioner at the Consulate of Canada and Paul Roben, Ph.D., is an Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Commercialization at UC San Diego, according to the website.
A message to the defendants through the ThinkTank website email address was not immediately returned.
Charles Field, a partner at Sanford Heisler and counsel for the plaintiff, said his firm looks “forward to learning more about the manner in which the defendants raise capital from investors and determining how the capital is allocated among the various persons and entities,” in a statement accompanying the lawsuit.