FINRA has suspended a former Wells Fargo adviser for four months for allegedly talking customers into investing a total of $115,000 in a technology startup where his friend worked as a computer programmer.
Dennis Mark Adam Merritt, an adviser at a Wells Fargo branch in Tampa, Fla., was looking to secure future 401(k) business from the company in return for sending investors its way, according to FINRA.
FINRA scolded Merritt for participating in private securities transactions without his firm's knowledge and recommending unsuitable securities to customers. It also berated Merritt for failing to adequately review the company documents that the CEO of the startup provided him.
As a result of his cursory review of corporate documentation, Merritt did not realize that the CEO and three other individuals owned all of the company's 11 million Class C units, even though they had contributed no capital to the enterprise, FINRA said. Holders of Class C units controlled the operations of the company as they were entitled to elect four of the seven members of the board of managers.
Within days of meeting with the CEO in Merritt's Wells Fargo office, Merritt allegedly began to recommend the company as an investment opportunity to customers. In total, he persuaded four customers to invest $115,000 in the company, including a 91-year-old who invested $55,000. He told one customer that the investment's value could increase by 50% to 100% and falsely stated that he personally had invested in the company, FINRA said.
Merritt, who now works for J.W. Cole Financial, declined to comment when reached by phone. In his settlement with FINRA, Merritt neither admitted nor denied the charges but consented to an entry of FINRA's findings.
Merritt concealed his participation in the sale of the company's securities from Wells Fargo, which prohibits registered reps from participating in private securities transactions. FINRA chided him for having falsely claimed in an annual attestation to Wells Fargo that he was in compliance with the firm's private securities transactions policy.
Merritt joined Wells Fargo Advisors in June 2009, according to his BrokerCheck report. He was discharged in May 2013 for "admitting to referring clients to an investment not offered through the firm," the report said.
The regulator declined to impose monetary sanctions due to Merritt's inability to pay.
Anthony Mattera, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, had no comment.