Friday, March 13, 2020

No. 359: Pittsenbargar, Shapiro, and a $1.3 Billion Ponzi Scheme

On February 20, 2020, the Texas State Securities Board (TSSB) issued a press release entitled "Austin Insurance Agent Indicted for Alleged $9 Million Fraud on Elderly." The agent was Brett Pittsenbargar. When I explored the matter, I learned about the involvement of California resident Robert H. Shapiro, a massive Ponzi scheme, the involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the involvement of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Here I discuss the case.

The Texas Indictment of Pittsenbargar
On February 4, 2020, a grand jury in Travis County (Austin) indicted Pittsenbargar for alleged violations of Texas securities laws. He was arrested on February 19, and was booked into the Travis County jail.

Pittsenbargar was not licensed to offer or sell securities. The indictment alleges he sold or offered securities, and did so without disclosing important information. The indictment, which lists many victims by name and shows dates and amounts, is in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post.

On March 3, 2020, in the morning, I visited the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) website to learn about Pittsenbargar's agent license. The license type was "life agent individual," the license number was 1530748, the original issue date was October 14, 2008, the "status" was "active," the effective date was October 14, 2008, and the expiration date was January 31, 2021. He had "active" appointments with ten life insurance companies: American National Insurance Company, Americo Financial Life and Annuity Insurance Company, Fidelity Security Life Insurance Company, Genworth Life Insurance Company, Government Personnel Mutual Life Insurance Company, Guggenheim Life and Annuity Company, Life Insurance Company of the Southwest, North American Company for Life and Health Insurance, PHL Variable Insurance Company, and Sentinel Security Life Insurance Company.

On March 5, I checked the TDI website again. The "status" of Pittsenbargar's license was "inactive." The "effective date" was March 3, 2020. The "status" of his appointment with each of the ten companies was "inactive." The "termination date" was March 3, 2020.

On March 6, I filed with TDI a public records request. I asked for a copy of the letter to Pittsenbargar notifying him that his agent's license had been revoked, and a sample copy of the letter sent to each of the companies notifying them that his appointments with them had been terminated.

On March 11, TDI sent me three one-page documents. The first, dated March 3, is a "Voluntary Surrender of Insurance Licenses" signed by Pittsenbargar. The second, dated March 9, is a letter from a TDI investigator informing Pittsenbargar he is prohibited from performing the acts of an insurance agent. The third, dated March 11, is a "Texas Appointment Action Notice" informing American National Insurance Company of six new appointments and ten terminated appointments, including the March 3 termination of Pittsenbargar's appointment. The three documents are in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post. (See State of Texas v. Pittsenbargar, 147th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas, No. DPS 2699012.)

The Florida Indictment of Shapiro
Shapiro, a resident of Sherman Oaks, California, was owner, president, and chief executive officer of various Woodbridge companies. On April 5, 2019, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted Shapiro and two other individuals. The indictment included ten counts: one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, and one count of evasion of payment of federal income taxes. The indictment also sought restitution relating to a massive Ponzi scheme. Here is how the indictment described such a scheme:
19. A "Ponzi" or "Ponzi scheme" is an investment fraud scheme that involves the payment of claimed returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors. Ponzi scheme organizers often solicit new investors by promising to invest funds in opportunities claimed to generate high returns with little or no risk. In many Ponzi schemes, the participants focus on attracting new money to make promised payments to earlier-stage investors to create the false appearance that investors are profiting from a legitimate business. Ponzi schemes require a consistent flow of money from new investors to continue and tend to collapse when it becomes difficult to recruit new investors or when a large number of investors ask for their money back.
On August 7, 2019, Shapiro pled guilty to the first and tenth counts of the indictment. On October 16, the judge sentenced Shapiro to imprisonment for 300 months, consisting of 240 months as to the first count, and 60 months as to the tenth count, to run consecutively, followed by supervised release for three years as to each of the first and tenth counts, with the terms to run concurrently. The other eight counts were dismissed. The indictment is in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post.

On August 8, the U.S. Attorney in South Florida issued a press release entitled "Mastermind of $1.3 Billion Investment Fraud (Ponzi) Scheme—One of the Largest Ever—Sentenced to Twenty-Five Years in Prison on Conspiracy and Tax Evasion Charges." The press release is in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post.

On November 4, the judge added restitution of about $479 million. With regard to the two other defendants, proceedings are ongoing. (See U.S.A. v. Shapiro, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Case No. 1:19-cr-20178.)

The SEC Complaint Against Pittsenbargar
On November 25, 2019, the SEC filed a civil complaint against Pittsenbargar and a firm he owned. Here are three paragraphs of the complaint:
4. The Woodbridge Group of Companies LLC and its affiliates ("Woodbridge") was headquartered and ran its operations in the Central District of California, specifically Sherman Oaks, California. The defendants transacted business in the Central District of California while participating in the offer and sale of Woodbridge's securities over the course of more than 4 years. Among other things, the Defendants regularly communicated via telephone, email, text message and mail with Woodbridge employees who were located in Sherman Oaks, California. Additionally, Pittsenbargar met with Woodbridge executives in the District and from September until December 2017, Pittsenbargar was an employee of Woodbridge.
10. Unbeknownst to the Defendants' clients, many of whom were elderly and had invested their retirement savings as a result of the Defendants' marketing techniques, Woodbridge was actually operating a massive Ponzi scheme, raising more than $1.2 billion before collapsing in December 2017 and filing a petition for bankruptcy. Once Woodbridge filed for bankruptcy, investors stopped receiving their monthly interest payments, and have not received a return of their investment principal.
15. Robert H. Shapiro ("Shapiro") was a resident of Sherman Oaks, California at all material times. He was Woodbridge's owner, President and CEO and, until the company's bankruptcy filing, maintained sole operational control over the company. In August 2019 Shapiro pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the Woodbridge Ponzi scheme, as well as tax evasion, and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. He is currently in federal custody. Shapiro is not, and has never been, registered with the Commission, FINRA, or any state securities regulator.
The complaint alleges two counts of violations of federal securities laws. The SEC requests, among other things, a finding that the defendants violated federal securities laws, a permanent injunction, disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains with prejudgment interest, and civil penalties.

The complaint is in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post. (See SEC v. Pittsenbargar, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Case No. 2:19-cv-10059.)

General Observations
Pittsenbargar, an agent with a valid Texas license to sell life insurance, started selling securities without a securities license. He also became involved with a national firm headed by Shapiro, an individual in California, who also was not licensed to sell securities, and who in addition was operating a massive Ponzi scheme. What will happen to Pittsenbargar in the Texas criminal case remains to be seen. It is a sad story.

Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 59-page package consisting of the Texas indictment against Pittsenbargar (7 pages), the documents received from TDI relating to Pittsenbargar (3 pages), the federal indictment against Shapiro (29 pages), the press release issued by the U.S. Attorney in Florida (3 pages), and the SEC civil complaint against Pittsenbargar (17 pages). Send an email to and ask for the March 2020 package about Pittsenbargar and Shapiro.