Widely followed financial planner Dawn J. Bennett hosted a radio show called Financial Myth Busting, and federal authorities allege her on-air claims about her AUM were myths, too.
The SEC announced fraud charges Wednesday claiming that the Washington, D.C.-based advisor “frequently touted to customers and more broadly on her paid radio program that highly profitable investment returns generated by Bennett Group Financial Services placed it in the ‘top 1%’ of firms worldwide without disclosing that the returns were calculated for a model portfolio and not based on actual investor performance.”
“We allege that in a calculated effort to inflate their profile and prestige, Bennett and her firm overhyped the amount of assets they manage for customers and the actual returns on their investments,” said Sharon Binger, director of the SEC’s regional office in Philadelphia. “The investing public is entitled to a level of confidence that information they receive about brokerage and advisory services is accurate, and this case shows that so-called financial experts on the radio are often merely advertisers who may not be doing so truthfully.”
Messages left at Bennett Group Financial Services were not returned, nor were emails sent to the firm. Her show's website and Facebook page remained online and unaltered after the release. No one at the radio show syndicator returned inquiries regarding the status of Bennett's show following the SEC announcement. It was not immediately clear whether Bennett had hired a lawyer to represent her.
In several instances on-air and on a Facebook page for her radio show, which Bennett began syndicating in 2010 through Arlington, Va.-based Radio America, the SEC alleges that “Bennett and her firm claimed to be managing more than $2 billion in assets when the real number was no more than one-fifth of that amount.”
Additionally, the SEC claims Bennett and her firm “falsely asserted that they gave advice about short-term cash management to three corporate clients regarding more than $1.5 billion in corporate assets. In reality, they never provided such advice.”
The lesson for advisors from these cases is a simple one, says Jupiter, Fla.-based securities attorney Marc S. Dobin: “If you're going to promote your business publicly, what you say to the public has to be true.”
There are going to be changes in an advisor's AUM in any market, especially one that has seen volatility like in recent weeks, Dobin says. However, he adds, "If you misstate your AUM by a factor of 200%, that's not a white lie. That's going to make the SEC crazy."
David Mrazik, managing partner of the Hamburger Law Firm and managing director of MarketCounsel, says Bennett’s hosting of a media program is not the reason for the SEC case; advisors are allowed to promote their businesses. "Nothing says you can't have a radio show – this case is about truth in advertising and not committing fraud. Supplying misleading information is clearly not in the best interest of clients," Mrazik says.
"The SEC is increasing its surveillance and supervision on how people marketing themselves," Dobin adds. "If you lie about how big you are, that’s an easy one; that's low-hanging fruit for the SEC."
The regulatory agency says a public hearing before an administrative law judge has been scheduled (the date was not disclosed) to determine what if any action will be taken against Bennett and her firm.
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