The CEO of an online brokerage firm was permanently banned from the financial industry, and he and his firm were ordered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) to pay $13.7 million to one-time investors for running what the regulators called a Ponzi scheme that targeted NFL and NBA players.
FINRA's announcement on Wednesday did not mention the names of the athletes ensnared in the alleged scam that was spearheaded by Fuad Ahmed of Success Trade Securities, but an on-going 32-month investigation by Yahoo Sports determined that a large portion of those involved were players represented by now-banned financial adviser Jinesh "Hodge" Brahmbhatt and his now-defunct investment advisory firm, Jade Private Wealth Management. Among those players were San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden, former Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, former Chicago Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, Miami Dolphins DL Jared Odrick, Oakland Raiders DT Pat Sims, Minnesota Vikings DT Fred Evans and Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight.
Prior to being banned from the industry, Brahmbhatt and his employees at his Virginia-based firm managed finances for upward of 70 professional athletes.
According to the FINRA hearing panel, Brahmbhatt and representatives of Jade sold fraudulent promissory notes to players as a quid pro quo for the brokerage firm paying its operating expenses. Success Trade made a "loan" of $1.25 million to Jade but Brahmbatt never repaid the money, and Ahmed never made any attempts to collect it.
Yahoo Sports previously reported that multiple federal agencies – including the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – were probing investments sold to NFL and NBA players by Brahmbhatt and his employees. No one has been indicted for the role they played in the investment losses the players experienced.
Ahmed has 45 days to appeal FINRA's ruling before the multi-million dollar restitution decision becomes final. Ahmed couldn't be reached for comment.
Among the revelations in documents related to FINRA's decision:
• Ahmed and Brahmbhatt met in 1994 while working at Stratton Oakmont, the "over the counter" brokerage house founded by Jordan Belfort and made famous by the movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street."
• Ahmed and Brahmbhatt were under tremendous financial duress when they began selling the notes to athletes. Ahmed had borrowed $800,000 from a New York businessman at interest rates ranging from 50-53 percent a year, while Brahmbhatt had borrowed $275,000 from his former employer that he couldn't pay back when he parted ways with the firm.
• Brahmbhatt "developed the idea of soliciting professional athletes after realizing that [players] had no concept of budgeting and needed help even to understand how much they were spending."
• A large number of the investors they courted were unsophisticated "recent college graduates who had just begun playing professional sports or who were waiting to be drafted to play professional sports" who "lacked the assets and income history to qualify as accredited investors permitted to buy such notes." Brahmbhatt assured Ahmed that he could get all of his clients to invest in Success Trade.
• Ahmed and Success Trade offered players returns that typically promised 12.5 percent, with some players receiving returns in excess of 200 percent.
• 32 investors put more than $100,000 into the promissory notes, with amounts that averaged more than $367,000 and topped out at more than $2,000,000.
Brahmbhatt's attorney Alan Futerfas, of The Law Offices of Alan S. Futerfas, said Brahmbhatt was not a party to the FINRA proceedings involving Success Trade and Ahmed. He emphasized that as a result, FINRA's findings did not take into account any of the facts Brahmbhatt would have used to defend himself.
"The FINRA panel recognized that Mr. Brahmbhatt and Jade were not given accurate information by STI [Success Trade]," Futerfas said via email to Yahoo Sports. "The panel did not mention that Jade employees, including Mr. Brahmbhatt and friends and relatives of Jade employees, invested in STI. The panel may not have had that information. And, because Mr. Brahmbhatt was not in the STI/Ahmed case, we were not in a position to put evidence before the panel or show what the facts are from the perspective of Jade. We nonetheless are gratified that the panel recognized that Jade was misled and rejected STI's attempt to shift blame to Jade."
Brahmbhatt was registered in the NFL Players Association's financial adviser program and maintained that status for the better part of a decade. The NFLPA suspended Brahmbhatt 42 days after he was first implicated in selling what FINRA called fraudulent notes. Union spokesman George Atallah didn't respond to emails, text messages or calls for comment on Brahmbhatt. NFLPA president Eric Winston also did not respond to request for comment.
The nature of the relationships between agents (and/or their employees) and financial advisers has gained attention in recent years with a spate of high-profile cases involving players who experienced multi-million dollar investment losses at the hands of NFLPA registered financial advisers. While the union allows and encourages agents to refer clients to advisers registered in its program, questions regarding who bears the responsibility for conducting due diligence on those advisers – and how in depth those inquiries have to be – remain unsettled.
One prominent example of that debate arises in the $6.5 million dispute between agent Drew Rosenhaus and Terrell Owens over whether Rosenhaus is responsible for the investment losses Owens experienced after the agent introduced him to, and recommended he use now-banned financial adviser Jeff Rubin. The case details the recruiting relationship that existed between Rubin and Rosenhaus which saw the two come to share 26 clients at one time or another. That relationship contributed to players allegedly losing more than $53 million in unauthorized investments and an illegal Alabama bingo operation.