Chase Carlson wasn’t looking for work. He found it anyway. It was a Saturday night in January, and Carlson, an investment fraud lawyer from Miami, was attending the Pegasus World Cup, a horse race held north of the city. One of the world’s most lucrative races, the Pegasus doubles as a giant party — the Kentucky Derby meets South Beach, with velvet rope VIPs like Bella Thorne and a closing concert from Snoop Dogg. Wearing a sport coat and purposefully gaudy purple pants, Carlson was in a festive mood.
But then he ran into a friend, an agent for National Football League players. The agent had a problem. One of his former clients had lost money in a Ponzi scheme involving Jinesh “Hodge” Brahmbhatt, a Washington-area financial adviser who reportedly managed money for more than 70 professional athletes, including former Redskins running back Clinton Portis, before being barred from the industry in 2013. The brokerage firm behind the scheme subsequently was ordered to pay nearly $14 million in restitution to investors, most of them athletes. Brahmbhatt himself was fined and sanctioned by federal regulators in 2018.
Was it now too late, the agent asked Carlson, for his former client to recover anything? “I told him I would look into it,” Carlson says. “I ended up not even having a drink that night.”
When the NFL draft was held recently, a new group of athletes graduated to collecting six- and seven-figure paychecks; odds are, at least a few of them will end up getting ripped off during their careers. That’s where Carlson comes in. The 34-year-old has carved out an unusual niche in the sports world: He’s the guy athletes hire to find their money when the people they’ve trusted to watch that money instead have made it disappear.
Carlson says that, over the past half-decade, he has represented more than 30 athletes — such as Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem and retired NFL cornerback Asante Samuel — who have lost fortunes by trusting inept or crooked advisers. He has recovered, he says, nearly $9 million on behalf of his clients. Some of these settlements and judgments (including that of Samuel, who could not be reached for comment) have been publicly reported; others have not; and still other cases (including that of Haslem, who declined to comment) are ongoing. Along the way, Carlson has seen athletes get bamboozled by smooth talkers and trust-me charmers, pouring cash into shady start-ups, bogus securities, an ill-conceived electronic bingo casino and an ill-fated nightclub that was run by the financial adviser who recommended the investment. He has become an expert on how and why athletes get duped, and something of a gossip clearinghouse for agents, accountants and others who suspect someone is stealing from the players they work with.
That, in turn, accounts for Carlson’s inability to enjoy a night out in relative peace — and his frequently vibrating mobile phone. Over the two days we spend together in Miami in mid-February, I see some of the messages as they come across and others that have arrived since the beginning of the year. Buzz! An agent for a former first-round NFL draft pick has a tip: “Gave ur # to one of my Players & his gf .. I will explain later.” Buzz! An insurance salesperson who works with a National Basketball Association star wants to talk. Buzz! The new adviser for an NFL player wants to know how to “go after” his predecessor for leaving his client’s investments at “zero.” “This is definitely a growing business,” Carlson says. “I get calls about it every day.”
For athletes, financial fraud is practically an occupational hazard, akin to concussions and torn knee ligaments. John Elway, Eric Dickerson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are among the marquee names that have been shaken down. Portis claims to have lost millions because of the malfeasance of Brahmbhatt and others; in 2017, he told Sports Illustrated that he once staked out a local office building with a gun in hand, looking to even the score.
Last year alone, former Wizards center Kwame Brown accused his adviser of siphoning $17.4 million. Retired NBA player Kevin Garnett sued his advisers for allegedly pilfering $77 million. The adviser for Dennis Rodman, Ricky Williams and two other retired athletes received a 10-year federal prison sentence for pocketing nearly $6 million.
Some advisers steer their clients toward foolish investments. Others straight-up steal. Some do both. A 2018 report from the financial firm Ernst & Young estimated that from 2004 through 2017, athletes across all sports alleged fraud-related losses of nearly $500 million.
Carlson, who tracks cases on a spreadsheet of his own, believes the actual total exceeds $1 billion. “There are cases I know about that they didn’t have access to,” he says, adding that defrauded athletes often either are too embarrassed to pursue litigation or simply don’t bother because there’s nothing left to recover. “That happens two-thirds of the time,” he explains. “The player takes a tax write-off, the scammer gets away with it, and then they can go on and do it again.”
When athletes do sue, they can engender more scorn than sympathy. Another dumb jock lost their money. When will they learn? This drives Carlson nuts. If there’s anything he has gleaned from his clients, he says, it’s that they are uniquely vulnerable to trusting the wrong people — and that there’s no shortage of wrong people looking to cash in by cashing athletes out. “The average fan reads about one of these cases and thinks, ‘F— ’em, players are overpaid anyway. What the hell were they thinking investing in a Ponzi scheme or a nightclub?’ ” Carlson says. “But they don’t realize that athletes don’t know the odds the way other investors do. They’re being sold by the slickest salesmen in the world. There’s a lot more to this than people think.”
By his own admission, Carlson was a forgettable football player — an undersized offensive lineman who spent two seasons on the junior varsity squad at Miami Palmetto Senior High in Pinecrest, an affluent Miami suburb. “It was fun,” he says with a laugh. “But I had to be the smallest lineman in the county.”
Carlson’s true love was cars — specifically, the 1973 Chevy Impala he bought in 2000 at age 16, using money he saved from working at a supermarket. Carlson had the two-door hardtop repainted and its interior refurbished, and he installed custom wheels. Then something odd started happening. “I couldn’t drive two blocks without people flagging me down, wanting to buy it from me,” Carlson says. “Everybody wanted Impalas. The most famous rapper in town, Trick Daddy, had one in his videos. All the big-time athletes had them. They were a status symbol.” He began buying and flipping Impalas and Chevy Caprices, finding the cars on eBay and Craigslist and getting them fixed up at local shops like Harold’s Auto Repair — which counted basketball star Shaquille O’Neal among its clients, and where the one-time owner, a Haitian immigrant named Harold Coqmard, affectionately referred to Carlson as “white boy.”
While attending law school at Florida International University in the late 2000s, Carlson sold a 1975 Caprice convertible to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Glenn Holt. Holt, who is African American, grew up in inner-city Miami. Carlson, who looks a bit like a shorter version of Boston Celtics player Gordon Hayward, was raised in relatively well-to-do Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. Nevertheless, the two became close. “Chase sold me a really, really nice car!” Holt says with a laugh. “That’s easy to get ripped off on. He was a good dude.”
Carlson got to know Holt’s friends, too, many of them NFL players. He asked them about where they were putting their money. They asked him about where they should be putting their money. Carlson had an epiphany. “It seemed like guys were inviting in scammers, or had no clue about what they were investing in,” he says. “I started to see that they needed help.”
From Bernie Madoff to Theranos to the epically fraudulent Fyre Festival, scams are hardly unique to sports. Still, certain factors set athletes apart from other victims and make them inviting targets.
First, they’re much younger than the typical person with significant income. In the NBA, for instance, the average annual salary is $6.5 million. But the average player is only 26.4 years old. “When an adviser says to a 52-year-old businessman, ‘I recommend you buy X, Y and Z,’ just through experience they’re aware of what a stock is, what a bond is, the difference between municipal and corporate bonds, and what the relative risks of each are,” says Curtis Carlson, Chase’s father and a longtime securities fraud litigator with his own practice. “But a 22-year-old NFL rookie doesn’t know whether something is a reasonable recommendation or not. He doesn’t know that an adviser who says, ‘Meet me at the nightclub,’ is probably not someone you want guiding you.”
And athletes often use advisers for more than just guidance. Aaron Parthemer, a South Florida-based adviser who worked with roughly 40 athletes before a major financial regulatory body barred him in 2015, once described himself as being in the “financial concierge business.” It’s not unusual for athlete advisers to set up monthly budgets, handle mortgage and car payments, and essentially babysit their clients’ financial lives.
Take Louis Delmas, a Carlson client who lost money with Parthemer. When Delmas was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2009, he later told federal investigators, he wanted to “focus on football.” So Delmas went along with Parthemer’s suggestion that he invest in Club Play, a Miami Beach nightclub; he even let Parthemer decide the amount of money.
According to Delmas, Parthemer never offered to show him the club’s financial statements, which would have revealed roughly $3 million in losses over a three-year period. And Delmas never thought to ask for them. Nor did he think to question why Parthemer bought a boat to promote Club Play; why he fronted money for promotional expenses like securing a hotel room for Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson when the Super Bowl was held in Miami in 2010; why he also worked on opening a strip club in Doral; why he pitched a pie-in-the-sky club-centric promotional tequila deal to Bacardi that cost Delmas and others even more money; and why he tried to create a club-affiliated Miami Bikini Team in order to, in Parthemer’s words, “meet girls,” according to depositions taken as part of investigations by regulators. (Delmas declined to comment for this article.)
Delmas was stunned to learn from investigators that Parthemer had transferred $200,000 from his bank account into accounts connected to Club Play and the prospective strip club. Parthemer did “a great job of putting numbers together and making me happy,” Delmas told investigators, “knowing I don’t know where to go or I don’t know how to go about it, getting the truth out of this information.”
Former NFL player and Carlson client Antwan Barnes tells a similar story. He invested in Club Play on Parthemer’s recommendation, and had no idea the venue was bleeding cash. “When [the investment] was brought to us,” he told me, “it was more so what we would be making, not what we would lose.” Barnes ultimately lost about $200,000 — yet when he realized Parthemer had mismanaged his finances, he was distraught about more than just money.
“I signed with Aaron because he felt warm, like home,” Barnes says. “I felt like this guy’s not bulls—-ing me about anything. So I was mad, but more disappointed. I had grown to know Aaron over the years. I knew his mom and brother. I met his wife and kid. It felt like a betrayal of trust.” (Parthemer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Many athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which can make them more likely to find tangible investments such as nightclubs alluring, even though they’re far riskier than, say, boring index funds. Case in point: Between 2008 and 2010, 31 NFL players including Ray Lewis and Terrell Owens lost a combined $40 million investing in a failed Alabama electronic bingo casino recommended and partially owned by adviser Jeff Rubin, who later was barred from the securities industry by regulators. In a 2016 interview with “60 Minutes,” Rubin, who did not respond to requests for comment, publicly apologized to the athletes who invested in the casino, saying, “If I can go back in time, I wish I’d never set foot in Alabama.”
“I went from the inner city to making about $10,000 a week,” Holt says. “There were so many things that people asked me to invest in, like opening a nightclub. I didn’t have any knowledge about the liquor business. But you’re looking at the girls, thinking, ‘Maybe I can get free bottles or something.’ Chase was the first one who asked me, ‘Why are you going high-risk?’ ”
It was talking with Holt that led Carlson to a second epiphany: Maybe he should become an adviser, the better to help athletes avoid getting hoodwinked. Still in law school, Carlson interned with an investment firm by day and took classes at night; on weekends, he worked toward a master’s degree in finance. He got his securities licenses and reached out to NFL players and likely draftees. Who are you investing with? he asked. Do you trust them?
His pitch fell flat. “A lot of guys were really interested, but they were like, ‘Chase is the same age as us!’ ” Holt says. “People were afraid of that.” And that wasn’t all. Unlike Rubin, Carlson didn’t drive a high-end Mercedes. He didn’t wear fancy suits. He promised safe, long-term portfolio growth, with an eminently reasonable annual return rate of roughly 3 percent.
By contrast, Carlson recalls one of Holt’s teammates, a defensive lineman, telling him in 2011 that his adviser was recommending government-backed securities that were nearly risk-free — and delivering a whopping 14 percent return. Carlson was dumbfounded. “At the time, government-backed securities were paying 2, 3 percent,” he says. “It didn’t add up.” Convinced that he couldn’t compete with unscrupulous advisers, Carlson changed career paths, joining his father’s firm. And he began taking a closer look at the NFL lineman’s investment.
Hodge Brahmbhatt seemed credible. He told athletes he would put their savings into “ultraconservative” investments, the better to create wealth for “their kids and grandchildren.” He lived in a $2.6 million mansion in Potomac, Md., a redbrick Colonial with seven bedrooms, 7 1/2 bathrooms, two kitchens and a home theater.
But something was amiss. Between 2009 and 2013, his McLean, Va.-based advisory firm, Jade Wealth Management, was recommending that clients buy promissory notes from Success Trade Securities, a Washington brokerage firm, and CFP Group, a McLean company that specialized in fire protection for government buildings. The Success Trade notes promised interest rates as high as 30 percent; the CFP notes were the government-backed ones with the outsized returns that the lineman had bragged to Carlson about. Both sounded too good to be true.
So, Carlson did some digging. Working with journalist Rand Getlin, he discovered that CFP Group was located one floor above Brahmbhatt’s firm; that it had been fined by the Department of Justice for lying to obtain a federal contract; and that contrary to the sunny picture being painted by Jade, the company’s financial situation appeared dire, a toxic mix of too much debt, too little income and more than $100,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes. Carlson also found that Brahmbhatt had settled an arbitration case with a former NFL player who had accused him of mismanaging nearly $1 million, and that Brahmbhatt and two other Jade employees had failed their financial licensing exams multiple times.
In 2013, Carlson called in a tip to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, a nongovernmental organization that oversees the broker-dealer part of the securities industry. (Finra handles only civil cases and can’t send people to jail, but it does refer cases to federal prosecutors.) He also sent a six-page letter — along with 69 pages of supporting documents — to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The package was patterned after the now-famous letter independent investigator Harry Markopolos submitted to the SEC in 2005 warning about Madoff. “We had Madoff cases [at my father’s firm] and spent like six months immersing ourselves in his scheme to see what the red flags were,” Carlson says. “It was great training. There were similarities to the Brahmbhatt case.”
In 2013, Finra barred Brahmbhatt from the securities industry for life. The next year, it found that the Success Trade notes were bogus, part of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by company head Fuad Ahmed, an acquaintance and former co-worker of Brahmbhatt’s at Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage featured in the film “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Before Finra’s ban, Brahmbhatt told Getlin — then a reporter with Yahoo Sports — that while he steered athletes to buy the Success Trade notes, he was unaware of the scheme and believed that they were legitimate because Ahmed “never missed a damn payment.” But last year, the SEC fined him nearly $1.6 million for failing to tell clients that Jade had received more than $1.2 million from Success Trade in a “quid pro quo” for peddling the notes to a large group of athletes — a group that included Portis, current Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, former NBA player Sam Young and current Cleveland Cavaliers guard Brandon Knight.
(Brahmbhatt’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment. CFP Group and Jade are now defunct. Ahmed disputes Finra’s claim that he ran a Ponzi scheme and tells me that Success Trade was “a legitimate business. I fought Finra as far as I could go. I feel Finra discriminated against Success Trade because it was run by a Muslim American.”)
Carlson ultimately represented 11 athletes who bought notes through Brahmbhatt. “Not one of my clients was made whole or even close,” Carlson says. “There was no money there.” Jade and Success Trade were broke. And that highlights another issue for athletes: Even when they sue and win, a process that can take years, there’s no guarantee they’ll recoup their losses.
Better to avoid trouble in the first place. Before he tipped off regulators, Carlson said he tried to warn athletes connected to Brahmbhatt, going so far as to cold call and text players he didn’t know personally. “Nobody listened to me,” he says. “They don’t know who to listen to.”
Curtis Carlson says that’s not surprising. He recalls a meeting he and Chase had with a prominent NFL player who had lost money to Rubin and was looking for a lawyer. The Carlsons reviewed the player’s financial statements. They broke the bad news: Your money is gone. You need to cut ties with your adviser.
I can’t, said the player, who subsequently hired other attorneys. He’s paying my mortgage.
“It didn’t sink in,” Curtis says. “He thought Rubin would keep paying. It’s an inverse relationship: Athletes know less, so they have to trust more.”
In March 2018, Carlson stood on a stage in the ballroom of a beachfront resort in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., watching about 30 NFL players and their families eat breakfast. He was there for the league’s Personal Finance Boot Camp, a three-day event that educates athletes about budgeting, investments and, well, fraud.
Noting that Mike Tyson, Charles Barkley and National Hockey League player Dany Heatley all had alleged or suffered scamming by their agents or advisers, Carlson offered advice. Be careful whom you trust, including friends and family. Get proof of where your money is going. Pay your own bills. Beware of flashy advisers, private deals and promises of huge returns. Don’t assume that playing in the NFL will scare off con artists. “If they’ll steal from Mike Tyson,” he said, “they’ll steal from anyone.”
Carlson is aware of the irony: If athletes truly take his lessons to heart, they’ll pick better advisers and recognize the bad ones before it’s too late. Both outcomes could hurt his burgeoning business. “I do so much to try to stop this,” he says. “It would be okay to put myself out of work.”
Only that seems unlikely. Earlier this year, Carlson said he wrapped up a fraud arbitration hearing in Los Angeles, then went to Brazil for Carnival. A few days into his vacation, he received a voice mail. The caller had information about a scam involving athletes and wanted to talk.
“Do the math,” Carlson says. “Across the major sports, there’s always going to be about 4,000 young guys making money. And there will always be people taking advantage of them. Guys like me, we can do what we can to prevent this. But there will always be more.”
Patrick Hruby is a writer in Washington.