A Pennsylvania-based financial planner was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for defrauding clients by convincing them that a series of “alternative investment products” were low-risk, liquid investments.
Many of Anthony Diaz’s former clients testified at the 12-day jury trial held last year, with many saying that they’d invested their life savings based on his false representations of the products he was pushing. Diaz was convicted on Jan. 30, 2020, of seven counts of wire fraud and four counts of mail fraud in a case that has been ongoing since 2016.
At last week’s sentencing hearing in Pennsylvania federal court, Judge Malachy E. Mannion said Diaz had “lied through his teeth” at trial and continued to show little remorse.
“Are you such a con man that you don’t know you’re a con?” Mannion asked.
Diaz headed the financial planning business Financial Planners Group of America between 2008 and 2015 out of East Stroudsburg and Scotrun, Pa. During that time, Diaz solicited clients to invest in “alternative investment products” that included real estate investment trusts, business development companies, and oil and gas drilling companies.
Clients testified that Diaz enticed them by touting the investments as being low risk, with guaranteed protections on the principal investment as well as assured rates of returns. Diaz also told clients investors would be able to quickly access the funds, if necessary. But the products were actually high risk and illiquid, and some clients lost all of the money they invested. In some instances, clients reported that the investments had long holding periods, and they couldn’t access the funds; some revealed that they still couldn’t liquidate investments that were made more than 10 years ago.
But the investments were lucrative for Diaz, as the commissions on the alternative products could earn him as much as four times those one would typically receive on conventional investments like stocks, bonds or mutual funds. According to the prosecutors, Diaz consistently made more than $1.5 million on commissions each year, and used the money on pricey cars, properties throughout the country and numerous vacations. In a statement about Diaz’s sentencing, acting U.S. Attorney Bruce Bandler said he hoped the sentencing would offer some closure for victims.
“While it is true that violent crimes have a devastating impact on victims, it is also true that financial crimes sometimes have an equal, if not greater impact on victims’ lives,” he said. “Unlike physical injuries that can heal in time, losing one’s life savings as one nears retirement is not something many can recover from.”
Diaz also fabricated information on client documents about their assets, prior experience and their willingness to take on excess risk. Clients said Diaz would have them sign blank documents, and former employees testified that Diaz would have them input false information onto them so the clients would qualify as suitable investors for the products.
Employees were also ordered to keep silent about Diaz’s numerous terminations from broker/dealers (he was fired by five and allowed to resign by a sixth, according to the DOJ). Diaz also concealed past regulatory issues from clients, including that he’d been suspended by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in 2013 and was under investigation by FINRA and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. Diaz had been an advisor since 2000 and was registered with 11 different firms until FINRA indefinitely suspended him in 2015, according to his BrokerCheck profile.
In an interview with WealthManagement.com at the time the verdict was issued, Darren Gelber, who served as Diaz’s counsel for the trial, said that Diaz had been surprised and devastated by the verdict, and argued the kind of prosecution was rare as Diaz had not been charged with stealing funds.
“This ought to send a warning to brokers that disclosures may not protect them,” he said.
Gelber could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the sentencing.
According to the DOJ, Diaz faced a longer-than-usual sentence because of the “sophisticated nature of his scheme,” as well as the hardship he caused victims, his violations of securities regulations, his perjury during trial and for supervising his employees to conduct illegal acts. Diaz had previously stipulated that he had caused losses between $1.5 million and $3.5 million for the victims who testified at trial, and he was ordered to pay restitution totaling more than $1 million, in addition to his prison sentence.