The rules aren’t even in place yet, but allegations of fraud are already flying.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is crafting rules to implement a new law that makes it easier for private firms to raise money. But it has been struggling over how to do so in a way that protects investors from fraud.
On Thursday, the agency criticized a Washington firm and its owner, Daniel F. Peterson, for allegedly using the new law to lure investors into forking over cash for a phony deal that promised what they called “fictitious” returns. Peterson denied the allegations.
In a civil complaint, the SEC accused Peterson of telling investors that the law — known as the JOBS Act — would enable him to raise billions of dollars from the general public and generate 10-year returns of up to 1,300 percent for early investors.
But Peterson and his company, USA Real Estate Fund 1, have no guaranteed investment product and no affiliation with the two Wall Street firms that he said he partnered with for future offerings of the company’s stock, the SEC said.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Spokane, Wash., marks the first time the agency has accused someone of referring to the JOBS Act as part of a fraudulent scheme, according to the SEC.
“The JOBS Act is intended to help small businesses raise capital, not to legalize fraud or give unscrupulous entrepreneurs a right to make false claims to fleece investors,” Michael S. Dicke, associate director in the SEC’s San Francisco regional office, said in a statement.
The complaint alleges that Peterson has raised $400,000 from 21 investors and that he planned to raise more.
The agency has asked the court to order Peterson to return the money and to pay interest and penalties. It also wants the court to shut down the allegedly fraudulent activities.
In an interview, Peterson denied almost every allegation against him. He acknowledged only that he raised the money and used some of it to support himself and his wife. But he said his investors knew he would be using the money that way as he tried to get his business off the ground, and that they each wrote a letter to the SEC saying so.
“I’m ecstatic [the SEC] actually decided to file, so I can get into court and show the inaccuracies,” he said.
Peterson has written many letters to lawmakers and SEC officials in support of the JOBS Act, which is designed to lower regulatory hurdles for small businesses.
The provision that he allegedly planned to use would lift a ban on “general solicitation.” Under this ban, private firms cannot advertise to the masses. They must limit their marketing almost solely to “accredited investors” with a certain net worth and income.
The JOBS Act would allow firms to advertise to whomever they want. But only accredited investors would be permitted to make a purchase. The SEC was supposed to put the rules in place by July 2012.