An Oregon-based investment group and three top executives have been charged with defrauding more than 1,500 investors out of $350 million as part of a “Ponzi-like” scheme to save the group from insolvency.
In a complaint filed Thursday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said founder Robert Jesenik, executive vice president Brian Oliver, and former CFO Scott Gillis kept Aequitas Management and four affiliates afloat by raising funds from investors while concealing the group’s true financial condition, including significant cash flow shortages.
The vast majority of the funds, the SEC said, were used to pay Aequitas’s operating expenses — including the three executives’ own lucrative salaries, a private jet and pilots — and repay earlier investors with money from new investors.
The executives “refused to disclose [Aequitas’s] true financial condition, continued to draw lucrative salaries, and roped even more unknowing investors into a losing venture,” Jina L. Choi, director of the SEC’s San Francisco regional office, said in a news release.
Aequitas once employed close to 200 people and boasted $500 million in assets under management, but ran into cash flow problems after Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit education provider, filed bankruptcy in April 2014. Between 2011 and 2014, an Aequitas affiliate bought $561 million worth of student debt from Corinthian.
In recent months, Aequitas has defaulted on payments to investors and laid off most of its staff in what, The Oregonian said, is “shaping up to be one of the largest Oregon investments scandals in a generation.”
According to the SEC, Aequitas issued promissory notes with high rates of return typically ranging from 8.5% to 10%, telling investors that the funds would be used to buy trade receivables in the healthcare, education, transportation, or consumer credit sectors.
By at least July 2014, the SEC alleged, Jesenik and Oliver “knew that redemptions and interest payments to prior investors were being paid primarily from new investor money in a Ponzi-like fashion, and that very little investor money was being used to purchase trade receivables.”
Between January 2014 and January 2016, Aequitas raised approximately $350 million from investors. Gillis was the firm’s CFO from April 2015 to January.