Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Normally it wouldn’t be news that a small-fry stock hustler like Christopher F. Veale got busted for allegedly churning an octogenarian customer’s account. But here’s why it is now: He used to work at Stratton Oakmont Inc., the boiler room depicted in the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” So when the state of Massachusetts went after him, the story made headlines.
Fellow members of the Stratton Oakmont diaspora are now on notice: For the foreseeable future -- or at least until the film stops playing in theaters -- anytime an alumnus gets pinched, it will be a matter of public interest. Coincidentally, the case against Veale also points to a gaping hole in the securities industry’s reporting system that makes it easier for brokers with checkered histories to avoid prying eyes.
Veale, who declined to comment when contacted by a Bloomberg News reporter, worked at Stratton Oakmont from 1995 to 1996, the year that the Lake Success, New York-based firm was shut down by regulators. He has worked at 17 different firms since then, including John Thomas Financial Inc., a bucket shop that went bust last year amid fraud claims by regulators.
Massachusetts authorities this week filed a complaint seeking to bar Veale and his former employer, Brookville Capital Partners of Uniondale, New York, from the securities business in that state, along with a second broker. Massachusetts also is seeking restitution. The complaint says the investor, an 81-year-old Rhode Islander, put about $870,000 into the account and was charged about $320,000 in commissions and hidden markups.
There is nothing I would like better at this moment than to have the ability to tap into a sophisticated, comprehensive database and run a search for the names and license numbers of stockbrokers who share the following characteristics:
-- They have worked at 10 or more broker-dealers in the past 20 years;
-- They used to work at Stratton Oakmont; and
-- They used to work at John Thomas, which if you didn’t happen to know already from the D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” is a euphemism.
I should be able to get a list of these people and do something journalistic with it, such as publish an article. This should be easy. I should be able to go to the website of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the Wall Street-financed overseer of the securities industry, and search its database in any way I want. But I can’t. And unless you work at Finra or maybe some government agency, you can’t, either. Finra won’t let us.
Sure, I can look up Veale’s employment background and disciplinary history on Finra’s website. I can run checks on individual firms, too. But Finra won’t release its complete database to the public. Why not? Finra won’t explain its reasons. But I can guess. It doesn’t want nosy journalists or anyone else in the public snooping around, dredging up lists of stinky brokers that Finra and other regulators inexplicably haven’t put out of business.
If Finra allowed meddlesome people like me to do things like that, then Finra probably would look really bad in the public eye on a regular basis, or at least more frequently than it does now. And it would dawn on more investors that Finra -- which is a nongovernmental, self-regulatory body -- is more a champion of the securities industry than it is an advocate for the public’s interests. It doesn’t have quite the same marching orders to put schlocky brokers out of business as it would if it were a full-fledged cop on the beat.
Veale and Brookville both had been fined by regulators before. Brookville used to be known as New Castle Financial Services but changed its name after Finra fined it $200,000 in 2010 for supervisory violations.
The Wall Street Journal did a fabulous article on the subject of sleazy, fly-by-night brokers last October. The reporters had to go to incredible lengths to get the data. The pattern of brokers moving from one misbehaving firm to another is called “cockroaching.” The Journal found more than 5,000 brokers who were still licensed to sell securities after working for one or more firms that regulators had kicked out of the industry from 2005 to 2012. A lot of migration and cross-pollination between crooked shops goes on, as one might expect.
To get its data, the Journal had to file open-records requests with 50 state regulators -- which is a ridiculous amount of effort. Even then, the Journal’s reporters said they were only able to get full or partial data from 21 states in time for their article.
I asked a Finra spokeswoman, Nancy Condon, why Finra refuses to publicly release the underlying information in its database. She didn’t answer my question, but she did send me a statement. “BrokerCheck is designed to meet the needs of the individual investors so (it) is based on searches for individual firms and brokers,” she said, as if trying to convince me that this limited access is sufficient.
So if somebody wants to check how many other Stratton Oakmont graduates are still out there cockroaching from one bucket shop to another with only the barest hint of interference from Finra and other regulators, well, the public is out of luck. No sense telling anyone about the wolves in our midst unless we already know their names. The information is only some of our business. That’s the way Finra likes it.
And if it hadn’t been for a silly movie, you probably wouldn’t be reading about this now. Veale picked a bad week to be a Stratton Oakmont alumnus.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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