SPECIAL REPORT: SEC Sues Commodities Online LLC, Alleging Massive Fraud; Firm That Listed Surf’s Up Mod Terralynn Hoy As ‘Director’ Says It Plowed $39 Million Into Alleged Ponzi Scheme Operated By James Clark Howard III And Others
UPDATED 2:25 P.M. EDT (U.S.A.) In a complex case unfolding in Florida, the SEC has filed fraud charges against two companies that allegedly sold unregistered securities and conducted a $27.5 million “investment scheme” involving “purported commodities contracts.” A receiver has been appointed to marshal the assets of the murky businesses, which are known as Commodities Online LLC and Commodities Online Management LLC.
Millions of dollars generated in the scheme were moved to Mexico and the Netherlands even as the SEC was issuing subpoenas in the case last month, according to court filings. The agency described the transactions as “extremely suspicious.”
Although the SEC successfully halted the alleged Commodities Online scheme on April 1, the only defendants named to date are the companies themselves. The agency described the individuals presiding over the scheme — a former managing member and a vice president — as convicted criminals.
One of the individuals, according to the SEC, was a “convicted felon who was, in March 2010, charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud in conjunction with an unrelated Ponzi investment scheme.”
The other, according to the SEC, was an individual who “pled guilty to bank fraud and narcotics charges in 2005 and to transmitting a threat to injure charge in 2007.”
The PP Blog confirmed that, on March 5, 2010, the Boca Raton Police Department arrested James Clark Howard, who is listed as a “managing member” of Commodities Online LLC in documents filed with the Florida Department of State on Jan. 26, 2010.
Howard was charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud in a Ponzi case that may involve as many as five companies and their associates acting in concert to scam investors. Boca Raton authorities said the Florida Office of Financial Regulation also was conducting an investigation.
On Feb. 11, 2011, Louis Gallo was identified as a manager of Commodities Online Management LLC in records filed with the Florida Department of State. The Sun Sentinel newspaper reported that Gallo is “on probation for bank fraud and a cocaine charge out of New Jersey federal court.”
AdSurfDaily Member And Surf’s Up Mod Emerges As Figure In New Florida Flap
Other records show that, on Sept. 15, 2010, a Nevada-based company that listed former AdSurfDaily member and Surf’s Up moderator Terralynn Hoy as a “director” sued Howard and others in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The Nevada company — SSH2 Acquisitions Inc. — alleged that Howard and the others were running a Ponzi scheme into which SSH2 had plowed $39 million.
Hoy, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, was a member of Florida-based AdSurfDaily, which the U.S. Secret Service said in August 2008 was conducting an international Ponzi scheme involving tens of millions of dollars. After the ASD seizure, Hoy became a moderator at the pro-ASD “Surf’s Up” forum, which mysteriously vanished in January 2010 after cheerleading nonstop for ASD President Andy Bowdoin for more than a year.
Bowdoin was the target of a federal criminal probe the entire time Surf’s Up operated, according to court filings. In November 2008, just days after a key court ruling went against ASD, the firm endorsed Surf’s Up as its mouthpiece.
By February 2009, Hoy became a conference-call host and moderator of a now-defunct forum that promoted the now-defunct AdViewGlobal (AVG) autosurf. AVG, which had close ties to ASD, launched in the aftermath of the federal seizure of more than $80 million in ASD-related assets, the filing of two forfeiture complaints against ASD-related assets and the filing of a civil racketeering lawsuit against Bowdoin.
On June 30, 2009 — one day after Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison for his colossal Ponzi scheme — lawyers suing Bowdoin for racketeering alleged that AVG was an extension of ASD. In September 2009, federal prosecutors made a veiled reference to AVG in court filings in the ASD case.
AVG disappeared in June 2009, about a month after the grand jury that ultimately indicted Bowdoin for wire fraud, securities fraud and selling unregistered securities as investment contracts began to meet. The indictment against Bowdoin was unsealed in November 2010, and Bowdoin was arrested in Florida on Dec. 1, 2010.
Surf’s Up was known for unapologetic, unabashed cheerleading for Bowdoin, whom prosecutors said had swindled investors in Alabama in a previous securities caper during the 1990s. Clarence Busby, an alleged business partner of Bowdoin and the operator of the Golden Panda Ad Builder autosurf, swindled investors in three prime-bank schemes in the 1990s, according to the SEC.
More than $14 million linked to Golden Panda was seized as part of the ASD case — and yet the cheerleading for Bowdoin continued on Surf’s Up. The forum labeled ASD pro-se litigant Curtis Richmond a “hero” after he accused the judge and prosecutors of crimes in 2009.
Richmond was associated with a Utah “Indian” tribe a federal judge in a separate case ruled a “complete sham” after it filed enormous judgments against public officials in performance of their duties. Regardless, the cheerleading on Surf’s Up continued — even after it was revealed that Richmond had a contempt-of-court conviction for threatening federal judges and had been sued successfully under the federal racketeering statute by the Utah public officials and was ordered to pay nearly $110,000 in penalties and damages.
Federal prosecutors now say they have linked ASD to E-Bullion, a shuttered California payment processor whose operator — James Fayed — is accused of arranging the contract murder of his wife, a potential witness against him in a fraud case. E-Bullion has been linked by investigators in the United States and Canada to multiple Ponzi schemes.
SSH2, the company that listed Hoy as a director, alleged in September 2010 that Howard was part of a Ponzi scheme that also involved Patricia Saa, Sutton Capital LLC and Rapallo Investment Group LLC.
Howard had been arrested by the Boca Raton Police Department in March 2010, about six months before SSH2 accused him in the September 2010 lawsuit of operating a Ponzi scheme. In the lawsuit, SSH2 said it had conducted business with the defendants from “early 2009 through March 2010,” and ultimately turned over $39 million.
Howard and the defendants, according to the lawsuit, told SSH2 it was trading in commodities and “would produce profits of 40% per month or more, while not risking any of the invested funds.”
SSH2 did not say in the complaint how it had come to believe that a return of 40 percent a month with no risk was possible. Nor did the company describe its efforts to conduct due diligence on Howard and the other defendants.
Of the $39 million directed at Howard and the other defendants, SSH2 received back approximately $19 million in “fake and fraudulent ‘profits,’” according to the lawsuit.
If SSH2′s assertions that it conducted business with Howard and the others beginning in “early 2009″ and expected a return of 40 percent a month are true, it means that the business was being conducted in a period after which both the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and the alleged AdSurfDaily Ponzi schemes were exposed.
Both Madoff and ASD bragged about returns that were far less than the monthly returns allegedly offered by Howard and the other lawsuit defendants.
Madoff’s fraud was exposed in December 2008, about four months after ASD’s alleged fraud was exposed.
And if SSH2′s assertions against Howard and the others are true, it also means the transactions occurred during a period in which Hoy, later to emerge as an SSH2 director, also was moderating forums for ASD and AVG and also was serving as a conference-call host for AVG, which purported to operate from Uruguay and enjoy protection from U.S. regulators because of its purported “private association” structure.
ASD’s Bowdoin initially ceded the money seized by the Secret Service in January 2009, dropping his claims to the cash “with prejudice.” By the end of February 2009, however, Bowdoin sought to reenter the case as a pro se litigant and renew his claim to the money, which totaled about $65.8 million.
Bowdoin’s sudden reappearance in a case he had abandoned coincided with a meeting AVG reportedly conducted with Karl Dahlstrom, a convicted felon. In March 2009 — in a letter posted on Surf’s Up — Bowdoin claimed he had decided to reenter the case after consulting with a “group” of ASD members. Bowdoin did not name the members, but chided federal prosecutors in his letter, writing that his pro se pleadings should “really get their attention.”
For the balance of 2009, Surf’s Up continued to cheerlead for Bowdoin, despite the fact he never told the membership at large about a second forfeiture complaint that had been filed against ASD-connected assets in December 2008. Bowdoin also did not inform ASD members that he had been sued for racketeering and had signed a proffer letter in late 2008 or early 2009 and acknowledged that prosecutors’ material allegations against ASD were all true.
Surf’s Up continued to operate even after prosecutors revealed the existence of the proffer letter. In Bowdoin’s own court pleadings, he had acknowledged he had given information against his interests to prosecutors. Bowdoin said he hoped to work out a deal by which he could avoid prison time, despite the fact prosecutors had alleged he was at the helm of a massive Ponzi scheme.
In October 2008 — at the conclusion of an evidentiary hearing ASD had requested — Surf’s Up conducted an online party for ASD members, complete with images of champagne and fireworks. Members were fed one-sided accounts of what had happened at the hearing, and a federal prosecutor was described derisively as “Gomer Pyle.” ASD’s lawyers were described as the “Perry Mason” team.
A month later — in November 2008 — U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled at ASD had not demonstrated at the hearing that it was a lawful business and not a Ponzi scheme. The AVG forum led by some of the Surf’s Up mods, including Hoy, launched shortly thereafter, and the Surf’s Up forum soldiered on.
AVG was positioned as a way for members to make up their losses in the alleged ASD Ponzi scheme.
Surf’s Up became infamous for deleting comments and information unflattering to Bowdoin. The forum also was used to hatch a rumor that the prosecution secretly had admitted ASD was not a Ponzi scheme but was clinging to the case in a bid to save face.
As time progressed, dozens of pro se litigants attempted to intervene in the ASD case, claiming the government had no “EVIDENCE.” These filings occurred despite the fact that some of the evidence had been a matter of public record since August 2008.
Critics referred to Surf’s Up, whose formal name was the ASD Member Advocates Forum, as the AS[Delusional] forum. Various tortured explanations for Bowdoin’s conduct appeared on the forum, and there were calls for a “militia” to storm Washington, D.C., and for a prosecutor to be placed in a medieval torture rack. Prosecutors and federal agents were derided as “goons” and “Nazis,” and critics were derided as “maggots.”
The SEC’s Case Against Commodities Online
On April 1, the SEC filed an action against Commodities Online that alleged it was selling unregistered securities and operating a commodities fraud that had absorbed at least $27.5 million. Florida attorney David S. Mandel was appointed receiver.
“In connection with the unregistered securities offerings, the Defendants made numerous material misrepresentations and omissions regarding the nature of Commodities Online’s business model and operations, the risks and earnings associated with investing in its securities, and the background of its co-founder and vice-president,” the SEC charged.
“On December 15, 2010, Commodities Online announced on its website that ‘[t]o date, we have 32 contract offerings that have been completed for which our steadfast subscribers have been paid. The dollar total of these contracts is approximately $7.5 million and the payout was in excess of $8.5 million, producing an average earning of over 14.5%.’
“That statement was untrue,” the SEC charged. “There is no evidence to support this amount of investor return. In fact, Commodities Online’s bank records show a net loss for the companies associated with these promised contracts. Further, the company’s records show a net outflow of cash for each of these associated companies.”
By March 14, 2011, the SEC charged, Commodities Online had upped its number of purported successful contracts to 48. That claim also was untrue, the agency charged.
Referring to Howard but not naming him, the SEC said that the company “failed to disclose that in 1997, he was convicted of federal narcotics and firearms felonies and sentenced to 57 months in prison. The Defendants never disclosed his past criminal background to investors either through the Commodities Online website or any other company communication to investors.”
Referring to Gallo but not naming him, the SEC said that, in 2005, he “pled guilty in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey to bank fraud and narcotics charges.
“In 2007, in the same court, he pled guilty to transmitting a threat to injure,” the SEC continued. “He is currently serving a three-year term of supervised release, which expires in July 2011.”
In a separate filing accompanying the complaint filed on April 1, the SEC said that Commodities Online “recently sent approximately $3.8 million to entities and individuals in Mexico and the Netherlands.”
Investigators deemed the transactions “extremely suspicious,” given that the transactions allegedly occurred between March 15, 2001, and March 25, 2011. The SEC said it issued subpoenas to the defendants on March 15, the same day the international transactions began to occur.