Prosecutor: Former top stockbroker 'built business on lies'

MICHAEL RUBINKAM

A former financial planner who was kicked out of the securities industry and ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages to customers he allegedly tricked into high-risk investments went on trial Monday on criminal fraud charges.

Anthony Diaz was fired by a series of brokerages amid persistent customer complaints and rules infractions. Yet he kept investing other people’s money until Wall Street’s self-regulator had seen enough and permanently barred him in 2015.

Some investors say they lost their life savings because of Diaz.

“They gave him money they could not afford to lose, and they told him that,” federal prosecutor Phillip Caraballo said Monday in his opening statement to a jury.

He said customers cashed out their retirement funds to give to the smooth-talking financial planner, who “promised to put their money in safe, low risk investments promising guaranteed profits.” Instead, Caraballo said, the money went to extremely speculative “alternative investments” meant for sophisticated investors who knew what they were getting into and could afford to lose their capital.

“Anthony Diaz built his business on lies, he built it on deceit, he built it on cheating,” Caraballo said.

The ex-broker’s lawyer, Darren Gelber, told jurors that Diaz was trying to help his clients diversify after the last financial crisis. He said the investments — in real estate trusts, oil and gas interests, an equipment-leasing business and other financial products — were legitimate.

The former customers who plan to testify against Diaz “got what they bargained for,” Gelber said, even though their investments might not have panned out.

Diaz has pleaded not guilty to an 11-count indictment alleging wire and mail fraud. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

The trial comes amid a court battle over a new Trump administration rule that requires securities brokers to keep the interests of their customers ahead of their own. Democrats and consumer advocates have said the rule actually weakens investor protections, and seven states and the District of Columbia have sued the Securities and Exchange Commission to block it.

Once regarded as one of the nation’s top brokers, Diaz earned millions of dollars over a 15-year career by pushing high-fee, high-risk “alternative investments.” Prosecutors said he had unsuspecting clients sign blank documents, then falsified their net worth, income, investment experience and risk tolerance to make it appear they met the suitability requirements of the products.

The stockbroker also lied to clients about having been fired, the indictment said, claiming he left each firm voluntarily.

Two years ago, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ordered Diaz to pay some $4 million in damages to 19 former clients. He has not complied, an agency spokeswoman said last week.

Adam Gana, a veteran securities lawyer who represented some of Diaz’s former customers, said he looked for assets owned by Diaz that could be used to satisfy the damage award but came up empty, “which is unfortunate because he left a lot of damage in his wake.”

Diaz’s customers “were exclusively retirees or people close to retirement age when they met Diaz,” Gana said in an interview. “Widows, elderly, unsophisticated investors who were totally bilked by him.”

Diaz has skipped out on at least one other damage award.

Bruce Kilby, a retired pharmaceutical company worker who invested about $350,000 with Diaz, won a $220,000 arbitration award against him a few years ago but said Monday he has yet to see any of it.

“Let him wind up in prison,” Kilby said in a phone interview. “And I hope they take his money. He shouldn't have it. He caused a lot of people great pain in their lives."