SEC Charges Texas-Based Regional Center with Securities Fraud

SEC Charges Texas-Based Regional Center with Securities Fraud

 On October 1, 2013 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced fraud charges in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas against a Texas based EB-5 Regional Center USA Now Regional Center LLC for misappropriating the investment funds of 10 investors from Mexico, Egypt and Nigeria. The USA Now Regional Center LLC was approved by USCIS in 2010 and raised $5 million dollars before the SEC brought charges at the federal court.

The SEC complaints shall serve as a warning to all risky and fraudulent practices in the EB-5 community. The security fraud charges are based on false statements, misrepresentation and improper disclosure made in the Private Placement Memorandum (PPM) by USA Now Regional Center. The SEC has alleged that the Ramirezes told investors that USA Now would hold their investments in escrow until they received USCIS approval. Further, once the funds were released from escrow, they would be used for specific EB-5 business purposes. As it turned out none of the 10 investors’ funds were even placed in escrow, instead USA Now routinely diverted the funds for other uses not described in offering materials, often on the same day the funds were received.  Among their misappropriations, the Ramirezes appear to have opened a Cajun-themed restaurant with investor funds and settled an unrelated lawsuit. 

The timing of the soliciting has been examined in the complaints as well. The SEC alleged that before the USA Now Regional Center received its designation from USCIS, Ramirezes and other USA Now employees already had started soliciting investors by false statements and misrepresenting the use of proceeds.

USA Now Regional Center principals Marco and Bebe Ramirez and three companies - USA Now LLC, USA Now Energy Capital Group LP, and Now Co. Loan Services - they own have fraudulently raised at least $5 million from investors by falsely promising that their money would be invested in an EB-5 Regional Center. Instead of investing the money as promised, the Ramirezes routinely diverted investor funds to other undisclosed businesses and for their personal use.  In at least one instance, they used new investor funds to make Ponzi-like payments to an existing investor.

The court has granted the SEC’s request to freeze the assets and accounts of the Ramirezes and their three companies. This effectively halts their ability to raise further money from investors or spend any remaining funds in the scheme.

The prosecution of the case is due to the joint efforts of the SEC and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The SEC’s complaint alleges that the Ramirezes and their companies violated and aided and abetted violations of the antifraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The complaint seeks various relief including preliminary and permanent injunctions, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains with prejudgment interest, and financial penalties.

An Investor Alert, released October 1, 2013, jointly released by the SEC and USCIS, states that: “the fact that a business is designated as a regional center by USCIS does not mean that USCIS, the SEC, or any other government agency has approved the investments offered by the business, or has otherwise expressed a view on the quality of the investment.”

The Commissions and the Services emphasize that it is important to thoroughly research any offering that purports to be affiliated with EB-5. Take these steps:

  • Confirm that the regional center has been designated by USCIS.If you intend to invest through a regional center, check the list of current regional centers on USCIS's website at www.uscis.gov. If the regional center is not on the list, exercise extreme caution. Even if it is on the list, understand that USCIS has not endorsed the regional center or any of the investments it offers.
  • Obtain copies of documents provided to USCIS. Regional centers must file an initial application (Form I-924) to obtain USCIS approval and designation, and must submit an information collection supplement (Form I-924A) at the end of every calendar year. Ask the regional center for copies of these forms and supporting documentation provided to USCIS.
  • Request investment information in writing. Ask for a copy of the investment offering memorandum or private placement memorandum from the issuer.  Examine it carefully and research similar projects in evaluating the proposal. Follow up with any questions you may have. If you do not understand the information in the document or the issuer is unwilling or unable to answer your questions to your satisfaction, do not invest.
  • Ask if promoters are being paid. If there are supposedly unaffiliated consultants, lawyers, or agencies recommending or endorsing the investment, ask how much money or what type of benefits they expect to receive in connection with recommending the investment. Be skeptical of information from promoters that is inconsistent with the investment offering memorandum or private placement memorandum from the issuer.
  • Seek independent verificationConfirm whether claims made about the investment are true.  For example, if the investment involves construction of commercial real estate, check county records to see if the issuer has obtained the proper permits and whether state and local property tax assessments correspond with the values the regional center attributes to the property. If other companies have purportedly signed onto the project, go directly to those companies for confirmation. 
  • Examine structural risk. Understand that you may be investing in a new commercial enterprise that has no assets and has been established to loan funds to a company that will use the funds to develop projects. Carefully examine loan documents and offering statements to determine if the loan is secured by any collateral pledged to investors.
  • Consider the developer's incentives. EB-5 regional center principals and developers often make capital investments in the projects they manage.  Recognize that if principals and developers do not make an equity investment in the project, their financial incentives may not be linked to the success of the project.
  • Look for warning signs of fraud. Beware if you spot any of these hallmarks of fraud:
  • Promises of a visa or becoming a lawful permanent resident. Investing through EB-5 makes you eligible to apply fora conditional visa, but there is no guarantee that USCIS will grant you a conditional visa or subsequently remove the conditions on your lawful permanent residency. USCIS carefully reviews each case and denies cases where eligibility rules are not met. Guarantees of the receipt or timing of a visa or green card are warning signs of fraud.
  • Guaranteed investment returns or no investment risk.Money invested through EB-5 must be at risk for the purpose of generating a return. If you are guaranteed investment returns or told you will get back a portion of the money you invested, be suspicious.
  • Overly consistent high investment returns. Investments tend to go up and down over time, particularly those that offer high returns.  Be suspicious of an investment that claims to provide, or continues to generate, high rates of return regardless of overall market conditions.
  • Unregistered investments.  Even though a regional center may be designated as a regional center by USCIS, most new commercial enterprise investment opportunities offered through regional centers are not registered with the SEC or any state regulator.  When an offering is unregistered, the issuer may not provide investors with access to key information about the company's management, products, services, and finances that registration requires. In such circumstances, investors should obtain additional information about the company to help ensure that the investment opportunity is bona fide.
  • Unlicensed sellers. Federal and state securities laws require investment professionals and their firms who offer and sell investments to be licensed or registered.  Designation as a regional center does not satisfy this requirement.  Many fraudulent investment schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms.
  • Layers of companies run by the same individuals. Some EB-5 regional center investments are structured through layers of different companies that are managed by the same individuals. In such circumstances, confirm that conflicts of interest have been fully disclosed and are minimized.

USCIS and the SEC have in recent years built a strong partnership with an emphasis on fostering EB-5 program integrity. The two agencies coordinate on issues at the case-specific and programmatic levels, and have participated in joint public engagement events to raise awareness among EB-5 developers and investors as to these issues. This Investor Alert is another example of our coordinated efforts regarding EB-5 program integrity.

Mona Shah & Associates reserve and hold for their own use, all rights provided by the copyright law, including but not limited to distribution, producing copies or reproducing, sales of this document. This article is a general summary of complex legal issues. No legal advice is provided in this article. Please consult the securities attorney for advice applicable to your particular circumstances.

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