By Alison Lowe
Nassau Guardian Business Editor
NASSAU, Bahamas -- The principal of a publicly-listed Bahamian investment company has been charged in the US over his alleged central role in an international fraud scheme that saw investors lose hundreds of millions of dollars.
Julian Brown, president and chief executive officer of Benchmark (Bahamas) Limited and principal of Alliance Investment Management (AIM), has been charged in a Chicago federal court along with AIM, for providing "substantial assistance" to Nikolai Battoo, president of BC Capital Group. Battoo was himself charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2012.
According to the SEC, as Battoo -- yet to be tried -- embarked on a "years-long campaign of lies and deceit" to cover "crushing losses" of $150 million in 2008 and to protect his reputation, Bahamas-based AIM and Brown played a "critical role" in his fraud. Battoo at one point claimed to have $1.5 billion in assets under management.
"AIM, a foreign securities broker-dealer, pretended to be an independent custodian safeguarding the securities and other assets invested in Battoo’s investment program," said the SEC in its complaint, filed August 8.
The SEC further said AIM was not independent from Battoo and his asset management program -- the company operated under the name Private International Wealth Management (PIWM); AIM also did not act as a "custodian" as it had claimed.
"Brown and AIM enjoyed a cozy and profitable relationship with Battoo, which was anything but arms-length. They at times shared office space, a PO box, telephone and fax numbers and a common employee. Battoo even infused AIM with $5 million of investor money to help keep AIM solvent," said the SEC.
Since at least 2009, AIM did not in actuality have custody of most of the securities and other assets listed on the account statements sent to Battoo’s investors, the SEC claims. When AIM received investment money from investors, Brown handed over most of it to Battoo, who "used it freely to support his lavish lifestyle – and to reward AIM," added the complaint.
The SEC alleges that Brown/AIM simply shipped a blank company letterhead to Battoo and allowed him to prepare investor statements on AIM's behalf. This further gave investors the perception they were receiving independent verification of their investments from AIM, as a supposed independent custodian.
Brown and AIM's involvement allowed Battoo's alleged massive fraud to "flourish in the shadows for years," said the SEC, as investors continued to funnel money towards Battoo's scheme in the belief that their investments were profitable and secure in AIM's custody.
"The longer the fraud continued, the bigger it grew; the bigger it grew, the more money Brown and AIM made," said the federal regulator.
Battoo, with the alleged assistance of Brown, is charged with not only concealing losses but also stealing funds from clients.
Five million dollars, which was on deposit with AIM, was "given to AIM as a supposed 'investment'" by Battoo, states the complaint, which noted that at this time AIM's accounts "had multi-million dollar deficits and the cash infusion kept AIM solvent".
In return, rather than keeping custody of funds forwarded to AIM on behalf of PIWM clients or using it to make investments to their benefit, Brown forwarded them on to Battoo, the SEC alleges.
"Brown and AIM transferred millions in investor assets to, among other places, Battoo, members of Battoo’s family, and an interior design firm that renovated Battoo’s 40,000-square-foot home in Switzerland," notes the complaint.
Battoo is alleged to have misappropriated at least $45 million of PIWM investor funds, which had been entrusted by investors to AIM as Battoo’s custodian, to sustain his "regal lifestyle", according to the SEC.
"He spent approximately $3 million traveling the globe on private jets. He used $11 million of investor funds to renovate and furnish a 40,000 square-foot mansion in Switzerland. He paid more than $3 million to secure immigration status as a Swiss resident, and he gave another $1 million to his mother and girlfriend," adds the complaint against Brown and AIM.
The SEC claims that in addition to the $5 million allegedly misappropriated from investors and forwarded to Brown and AIM as an "investment" by Battoo, Brown and AIM profited from their conduct through fees and commissions amounting to $290,000 since 2009.
It is alleged that Brown and AIM routinely provided bogus account statements to accounting firms retained by PIWM investors to audit their holdings.
Brown and AIM are accused of violating the Securities Act, the Exchange Act, aiding and abetting violations of the Securities Act, Exchange Act and Advisers Act
Among other demands, the SEC is calling on a jury to demand that Brown and AIM "disgorge the ill-gotten gains received as a result of the violations alleged herein, including prejudgment interest"; provide the SEC with "an accounting of all of the funds received, directly or indirectly, from Battoo, any entities affiliated with Battoo, or any of Battoo’s investors"; and "repatriate any funds, assets, accounts, or other property obtained or maintained with investor funds or with funds obtained from Battoo or his affiliated entities, or into which investor funds or funds obtained from Battoo or his affiliated entities have been deposited".
“We allege that Brown and his firm enabled Battoo’s scheme by providing investors with false assurances about who was holding their money and how much money they had in their accounts,” said Timothy Warren, associate director of the SEC’s Chicago Regional Office, in a release.
On AIM's website, Brown is described as a professional investment banker with over 20 years of experience in the international investment and private banking arena. In addition for working for a major retail bank locally, Brown is said to have served for three years as a director of The Bahamas Development Bank.
"In 1998, Mr Brown was honored by Barron's Who's Who of the World in Global Banking and Finance and also by International Who's Who of the World. He is presently the president and a director of Braun & Cie Ltd, (and) a director of The Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation," it adds.
The SEC said that its investigation is continuing. A release from the regulatory agency notes that it "appreciates the assistance of the Securities Commission of The Bahamas, British Virgin Islands Financial Services Commission, and Guernsey Financial Services Commission”.
In March 2014, a US court threw out the SEC's claim against Bahamian broker/dealer Warren Davis and his Gibraltar Global Securities firm that they knowingly helped perpetrate, and participated in an $11 million securities fraud.
Davis continues to face other less serious charges that he participated in the sale of unregistered securities.
Republished with permission of the Nassau Guardian