A Florida-based law firm has initiated an investigation into the sales practices used to promote two aggressive Merrill Lynch & Co. mutual funds, the Merrill Lynch Focus Twenty Fund and Merrill Lynch Premier Growth Fund.

The announcement of the investigation comes one day after The Wall Street Journal reported that James McCall, the manager of both funds, resigned from Merrill ( MFMN 11/7/01). The Focus Twenty Fund is down 71% so far this year, and the Premier Growth Fund is down 54%, according to Morningstar.

"Numerous Merrill Lynch customers who have bought this fund have contacted us," said Lawrence Klayman, a partner at Klayman, Lazarus & Toskes, P.A., the firm initiating the investigation. "We’re looking at how it was sold. It was pushed real hard. [Merrill] sold a lot of this to retirees and people it shouldn’t have been sold to."

Right now, the law firm represents more than five of the funds’ shareholders. Very recently, the firm has been inundated with calls from shareholders and expects to sign on many more clients, said Klayman.

The firm was working on launching the investigation before the reports that McCall was resigning surfaced, said Klayman. Still, the nature of the resignation will become part of the investigation. "Mr. McCall managed these funds and he was down double the market," said Klayman. "He departed Merrill and I’m sure we’re going to look at under what circumstances he left."

Neither McCall nor Merrill is commenting on the reason for the portfolio manager’s departure, according to the Journal. McCall had been recruited by former Merrill Lynch Investment Managers president Jeffrey Peek. Peek resigned in September after the firm selected Stanley O’Neal, not him, to be president of the firm.

McCall was surrounded by controversy as soon as he decided to join Merrill. He was formerly with Pilgrim Baxter & Assoc., where he ran several PBHG Funds that performed very well under his management. When he decided to leave the firm for Merrill, McCall filed a lawsuit against Pilgrim Baxter, claiming that the non-compete agreement he had signed with the firm was not binding ( MFMN 5/24/99). Pilgrim Baxter then filed a counter suit asking that the court uphold the agreement.

In his suit, McCall made allegations that the firm never paid him money he was owed and that it engaged in nepotism, favoring CEO Harold Baxter’s daughter, another portfolio manager. The suit was settled out of court in August 1999 ( MFMN 8/9/99).

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