The Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation today announced charges against five individuals whose attempt to manipulate shares of Boston-based Amogear Inc. was caught by an FBI undercover operation.
According to the SEC and criminal cases filed in federal court in Boston, the defendants knew that Amogear was a shell company without any real operations, but schemed to boost its price and profit by selling their own shares. What the parties didn’t know was that the FBI controlled Amogear and used it to obtain evidence of attempted stock manipulation. To protect investors, the SEC suspended trading in Amogear’s securities on February 10, as the attempted stock manipulation was underway.
The charges follow a series of cases since December 2011 in which the SEC suspended trading in seven companies and criminal authorities charged 22 individuals with using kickbacks and other schemes to trigger investments in microcap stocks, convicting 18 to date. Small “microcap” companies often trade for pennies per share and many do not file financial reports with the SEC. The fact that investors often cannot find accurate information about microcap companies can make the microcap stock market a fertile ground for fraud and abuse.
Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, said: “This case is an outstanding example of law enforcement creativity and cooperation trumping microcap fraudsters. By obtaining control of a shell company, using it to collect evidence of a manipulation scheme, and suspending trading before the scheme succeeded, we have protected investors from harm.”
“These defendants brazenly attempted to manipulate Amogear’s stock,” said Paul G. Levenson, director of the SEC’s Boston Regional Office. “It didn’t occur to them that the FBI and SEC were a step ahead of them.”
“As is clear from the combined efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and the SEC, market manipulation will not be tolerated,” said Carmen M. Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. “The prosecution of corporate and securities fraud is a top priority of the Department of Justice and a top priority for this Office. As is demonstrated by the recent charges, we will continue to develop new techniques to detect and prosecute those engaged in market abuse.”
“Fund representatives, CEOs, traders, fund managers, equities analysts, lawyers and publicists should take note that Boston FBI agents purposefully designed multiple undercover operations aimed directly at rooting out market manipulation and insider trading. As the scope and design of our undercover operations become well-known, no one should think that future undercover operations will be the same as prior ones because in this instance the FBI took control of a publicly traded company making it nearly impossible to discover,” said Vince Lisi, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Boston Division.
The following individuals were charged today by the SEC with securities fraud and were recently charged by the U.S. Attorney on the following criminal charges:
Andrew J. Affa, 30, of Huntington Station, New York, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud
Michael A. Affa, 34, of Toms River, New Jersey, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud
Mitchell H. Brown, 48, of Long Branch, New Jersey, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud
Christopher R. Putnam, 37, of Charleston, South Carolina, conspiracy to commit securities fraud
Christopher G. Nix, 34, of Charleston, South Carolina, conspiracy to commit securities fraud
The SEC is seeking permanent injunctions against further violations of the securities laws, return of allegedly ill-gotten gains with interest, civil monetary penalties, and to bar the defendants from being involved in penny-stock offerings. If convicted of the criminal charges, the defendants face a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
SEC Boston Regional Office Director Paul G. Levenson, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Vincent B. Lisi announced the charges. The criminal case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Vassili Thomadakis of the Economic Crimes Unit and SEC attorneys Eric Forni and Andrew Palid, who were appointed Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys. The SEC’s investigation was led by Michele T. Perillo, and Martin F. Healey will handle the SEC’s litigation.