Caught in a hedge fund fraud? What next?
Investors in fraudulent funds fight to get their money back, but it can take years, and results can be spotty.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - A group of investors including some current and former NFL players believed Kirk Wright when he told them he was a hedge fund manager who could deliver above-market returns if they invested with him.
Now Wright is on the lam after federal officials charged him with fraud, claiming he sent statements saying that his funds, managed by Atlanta-based International Management Associates, had over $150 million invested when the accounts in question held only $150,000 -- about the only money the SEC has been able to find in the funds. At one point, the funds together were believed to have held up to $180 million, the U.S. Attorney's office in Atlanta said.
In light of such high-profile hedge fund frauds at the Bayou Group in Connecticut, which snared some professional investors, and KL Financial in Florida, the Wright saga is yet another sobering, cautionary tale about the importance of doing a thorough check before making an investment.
But for those investors who been taken, the good news is they can recover some of their assets, provided there is actually something left to get -- or someone who can be held culpable for abetting the fraud.
"It costs money to get money," said Rick Rein, who heads up Chicago-based law firm Schwarz Cooper's international asset recovery group. "The people who have committed the fraud had a head start, and they spent a considerable amount of time trying to hide the victims' money for their own purposes."
Because of those costs, investors need to assess whether it's even worth pursuing a claim, according to Scott Berman, a partner in the litigation practice at New York-based law firm Friedman, Kaplan, Seiler & Adelman.
Berman has represented investors in past hedge fund blowups including Lancer, Lipper, Beacon Hill, and more recently, Bayou Group and Wood River, as well as older cases including David Askin's Granite Funds and the Manhattan Investment Fund, whose manager, Michael Berger, is still running from authorities.
"Every so often there's some money left and there's a fight over the carcass," said Berman. "But it's a cost-benefit analysis. How much money do you want to spend chasing it if there's not that much left?"
More often than not, there is nothing left to track down, according to Berman, either because the manager engaged in a classic Ponzi scheme -- using money from new investors to pay back older ones -- or because they simply blew it on living the high life.
That doesn't mean there is no hope, however. Berman said once he can establish that fraud or some other violation has taken place, he'll then go after third parties who may have assisted. That includes auditors who signed off on cooked books, administrators who provided incorrect statements about a fund's assets or brokers who provided improper information about the value of securities in the fund.
Following the money trail
If a lawyer decides there's enough left to make pursuing a claim worthwhile, they have to work quickly -- and quietly. According to Rein, hard assets like cars and real estate can be easy enough to track down, but financial assets often get parked offshore, where they are not only harder to locate, but harder to freeze.
"Delay is on the side of the fraudster," said Rein. "It can take a long time to recover assets; a lot of times you are pursuing claims on assets in multiple jurisdictions."
Rein said his firm works with private investigators to locate a fund's assets. Once the assets are found, attorneys step in to get the assets frozen and returned to the jurisdiction where the fraud was committed.
Attorneys also have to obtain a gag order so that the banks can't tell their customers that the attorneys are snooping around their accounts. "If you expose you are looking for this information, the money will move faster than you can snap your fingers," he said.
As with any criminal investigation, tracing where an investor's money goes in a fraud also involves an enormous amount of legwork -- investigating wives, girlfriends, cousins – anyone who may be connected to the scheme.
According to Berman, sometimes fraudsters will transfer ill-gotten assets to their spouses, and in these cases, investors can try to bring a claim that the assets were transferred illegally.
Once an attorney locates assets, he or she has to get them frozen – which is 90 percent of the battle, according to Rein. That's because it can be tough to get officials in other countries to recognize a judgment from a U.S. court.
Parting with the Porsche
In some cases, the Securities and Exchange Commission appoints a receiver to collect what's left of a manager's assets, as in the KL Financial case.
In that case, the SEC's court-appointed receiver has begun selling the manager's hard assets and funneling the proceeds into an account that will eventually go toward paying penalties.
The fund's manager, John Kim, and his wife have agreed to let the court-appointed receiver sell their Jupiter, Fla., home. Kim has already agreed to the sale of an apartment in Seoul, South Korea, and transferred the title of his Porsche 911 to the receiver.
Kim's remaining assets include a fleet of sports cars, jewelry and electronics, and cash from a safe deposit box. In return for his cooperation, the receiver will provide Kim and his family with $7,000 a month for four months.
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