SEC and Marijuana Business
The Securities and Exchange Commission charged a Utah-based company and its founder with falsely touting “record” revenue numbers to investors and claiming to be a leader in the marijuana industry while some of its earnings came from sham transactions with a secret affiliate.
According to the SEC’s complaint, Medbox provided marijuana consulting services and claimed to sell vending machines known as “Medbox” devices capable of dispensing marijuana on the basis of biometric identification. The SEC alleges that Vincent Mehdizadeh created a shell company called New-Age Investment Consulting to carry out illegal stock sales and used the proceeds from those sales to boost Medbox’s revenue. Medbox allegedly issued press releases headlining the phony revenues as record earnings to legitimize itself as a viable commercial operation when in fact nearly 90 percent of the company’s revenue in the first quarter of 2014 stemmed from sham transactions with New-Age. Mehdizadeh allegedly acknowledged in a text message that “the only thing we are really good at is public company publicity and stock awareness. We get an A+ for creating revenue off sheer will but that won’t continue.”
Meanwhile, according to the SEC’s complaint, Mehdizadeh funded the purchase of a luxury home in the Pacific Palisades with proceeds from New-Age’s illicit stock sales.
The SEC’s complaint additionally charges Medbox’s then – CEO Bruce Bedrick with being complicit in the scheme and personally profiting. The SEC also charged New-Age and Mehdizadeh’s then-fiancée Yocelin Legaspi with unlawfully selling unregistered securities. Mehdizadeh installed Legaspi as the supposed CEO of New-Age when he created the company.
“As alleged in our complaint, investors were misled into believing that Medbox was a leader in the burgeoning marijuana industry when the company was just round-tripping money from illegal stock sales to boost revenue,” said Michele Wein Layne.
Mehdizadeh and Medbox, which has since changed its name to Notis Global, have agreed to settle the SEC’s charges. Mehdizadeh agreed to pay more than $12 million in disgorgement and penalties and agreed to be barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company or participating in any penny stock offerings. The settlements are subject to court approval. The SEC’s litigation continues against Bedrick, Legaspi, and New-Age.
FINRA EXPELS LAWSON FINANCIAL AND BARS CEO ROBERT LAWSON FOR FRAUDULENT MUNICIPAL BOND SALES
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has expelled Phoenix-based Lawson Financial Corporation, Inc. (LFC) from FINRA membership, and has barred LFC’s CEO and President Robert Lawson from the securities industry for committing securities fraud when they sold millions of dollars of municipal revenue bonds to LFC customers.
The bonds at issue were underwritten by LFC and related to an Arizona charter school and two assisted living facilities in Alabama (which were the borrowers on the bonds). FINRA found that Robert Lawson and LFC were aware that each borrower faced financial difficulties, and Lawson transferred millions of dollars to the borrowers and associated parties from a deceased customer’s trust account, in order to hide the borrowers’ financial condition and to hide the risks associated with the bonds. FINRA determined that when LFC customers purchased the bonds, LFC and Lawson hid the material fact that Lawson was improperly transferring millions of dollars from the trust account to various parties when the borrowers were not able to pay their operating expenses or required interest payments on the bonds.
FINRA found that Lawson and his wife, Pamela Lawson (LFC’s Chief Operating Officer), who were co-trustees of the trust account, violated FINRA rules by breaching their fiduciary duties as trustees and engaging in self-dealing with the trust account. FINRA also determined that Robert Lawson misused customer funds. In addition to expelling LFC and barring Robert Lawson, FINRA suspended Pamela Lawson from associating with any FINRA member firm for two years and fined her $30,000 to be paid prior to her return to the securities industry. This disciplinary action settles a May 2016 complaint filed against LFC, Robert Lawson, and Pamela Lawson.
In settling this matter, LFC, Robert Lawson and Pamela Lawson neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA’s findings.
SEC ANNOUNCES CASES RELATED TO DISCLOSURES DURING BATTLES FOR CORPORATE CONTROL
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced two enforcement actions involving disclosure violations that deprived investors of material information during battles for corporate control of publicly traded companies.
In one case, the SEC’s order finds that Texas-based oil refinery company CVR Energy made inadequate disclosures in SEC filings about “success fee” arrangements with two investment banks retained by the company to fend off a hostile takeover bid. Shareholders were consequently unaware of potential conflicts of interest that stemmed from the fee arrangements, namely that the banks could still earn success fees even if the hostile bidder secured control of the company. CVR agreed to settle the case without admitting or denying the findings in the SEC’s order, which notes that the company will not pay a penalty due to its remedial acts and extensive cooperation with the investigation.
The SEC’s order in the other case finds that groups of investors failed to properly disclose ownership information during a series of five campaigns to influence or exert control over microcap companies. Jeffrey E. Eberwein and Charles M. Gillman collaborated with mutual fund adviser Heartland Advisors in some of these campaigns, and other campaigns involved a hedge fund adviser headed by Eberwein called Lone Star Value Management and a private fund advised by Gillman called Boston Avenue Capital. In each of these campaigns, the groups collectively owned more than five percent and sometimes even more than 10 percent of the companies’ outstanding common stock, yet the required ownership filings to disclose that information to the investing public were either incomplete, untimely, or altogether absent. Without admitting or denying the findings, they consented to the SEC’s order and agreed to penalties of $90,000 for Eberwein, $30,000 for Gillman, $120,000 for Lone Star Value Management, and $180,000 for Heartland Advisors.
“Full, fair, and accurate disclosures from all parties in a battle for corporate influence or control are critically important to investors particularly when they are called upon to make decisions about their investments,” said Gerald Hodgkins, Associate Director of the SEC Division of Enforcement. “Investors in these companies were deprived of key facts needed to make informed investment decisions.”
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