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Tables Turned on Schwab?

Tables Turned on Schwab? Suit claims Schwab, contrary to its ads, was not conflict free

Merrill Lynch’s David Komansky must be having a laugh. On Tuesday, a suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that Schwab was guilty of running television and other ads that materially mislead investors.

The suit—filed by Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP on behalf of plaintiff Eugene Braunstein of Los Angeles—specifically takes issue with a television ad in which Chuck Schwab says, “We don’t underwrite stocks; we only offer objective advice.”

Schwab spokesman Greg Gable said the firm would not comment on the case.

The complaint doesn’t name the specific ad, campaign or the date and year the offending ads ran, or even mention which initial public offerings Schwab participated in bringing public during the campaign in question. Nevertheless, the complaint charges Schwab with “disseminating false and misleading advertising and for engaging in unlawful and unfair business practices” to “maintain and/or increase its securities transactions and promote its financial products.”

The law firm, Millberg—itself infamous among business for its active class action lawsuit business—“brings this action to compel Schwab to restore to all investors all of the funds that they have invested in stocks in which Schwab was an underwriter,” and to “restore all commissions and fees related to such transactions,” the complaint says. “In addition, plaintiff seeks to disgorge all monies that Schwab gained from the deceptive advertisement and any other similarly deceptive advertisements.”

In fact, the suit claims, Schwab it was “acting as an underwriter in equity offerings when the ads aired.” None of the companies for which Schwab acted an underwriter were named in the suit. Co-council Alan Kaplan of the San Francisco firm Bushnell, Kaplan & Fielding refused to name any of the companies.

John Kador, author of the unauthorized book, Charles Schwab: How One Company Beat Wall Street and Reinvented the Brokerage Industry, says that Schwab & Co. was indeed an underwriter of about 20 to 25 IPO deals.

But Schwab “abandoned” its underwriting activities a few years ago, because, as a Schwab executive told Kador, Schwab viewed it as “a conflict of interest.”

“Schwab’s adventure with managing IPOs was short-lived,” Kador says. “While it’s true that customers clamored for IPOs in 1997, and Schwab did its best to meet demand, the company quickly discovered that handling IPOs was fundamentally at odds with its core values of delivering ethical, conflict-free services.”

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