I met Austin Dutton a couple of Philadelphia mayors ago, long before his firm was slapped with the biggest fine in Pennsylvania state securities enforcement history last month, and before he agreed to pay a record personal fine to the state. The Doylestown investment adviser invited me on his radio show about a story I'd written on the city's underfunded pensions.
The pension is a lifeline for police and other city retirees. I pointed out that its rising deficit threatened other city spending and taxpayers, who would soon be paying lots more to make up for the city's past neglect and bad bets on well-connected but poor-performing money managers. City workers weren't at risk, I noted; their pensions were guaranteed by law.
Dutton had a different agenda: He wanted to persuade city workers to buy "alternative" investments through him, such as real estate funds, including those being set up by Jenkintown scrap-metal-heir-turned-New-York-real-estate-mogul Nicholas Schorsch.
Dutton expounded his gospel of mixing traditional and nontraditional investments on the air, at free prospective-client steakhouse dinners, and in ads in Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 publications. He also pitched it in meetings at the FOP hall to which firefighters and other city workers were invited, and on his web site, which appealed for FOP members to invest their early-retirement DROP money.
We talked again in 2014, after one of Schorsch's public companies, American Realty Capital Partners, admitted exaggerating profits. "If you read all those crazy scandalous things people are writing, they're almost accusing him of being a member of al-Qaeda," Dutton told me.
Some brokers had stopped selling Schorsch-related funds, I noted. "It means nothing," Dutton affirmed. "A policeman, a schoolteacher, a pharmaceutical executive who does not want his money tied to the S&P 500" would do well to consider non-traded, real estate investment trusts (REITs), he said.
But don't those tend to be high-fee products, and tough to sell when a client needs cash? I asked. Their value should rise with commercial real estate, he pointed out. And they pay dividends. So investors "are protected." He added, "As 100 retired policemen have said to me, 'You must be the smartest guy in the world or the dumbest guy in the world. Because you have all our money, and we know where you live, and we all carry guns.' There's an accountability here."
Schorsch's empire has since unraveled. Two ex-American Realty executives were convicted of criminal fraud. Schorsch and former board members, including ex-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, have been sued by disappointed investors, who alleged that Schorsch took more money than he was entitled to; they have not been accused of criminal wrongdoing.
A Dutton client, lawyer Emil Toften, told me he and family members bought Schorsch-founded real estate funds from Dutton, but had been unable to sell them except at deep discounts. Dutton told me investors who bought for the long term kept collecting dividends and were happy.
Meanwhile, the S&P 500 has been hitting record highs, beating "alternatives."
Last month, the Pennsylvania Banking and Securities Department hit Dutton's firm, Florida-based Newbridge Securities Corp., with a record $499,000 fine, to settle accusations it had failed to maintain investment sales records for its Pennsylvania agent, Dutton.
Dutton then separated from Newbridge and affiliated with another off-Wall Street broker, Center Street Securities of Nashville, according to Finra, the investment industry's self-regulating arm.
Last week, Dutton agreed to pay Pennsylvania another $200,000, a record for an individual adviser. According to Finra's record of the settlement, Dutton "engaged in dishonest or unethical practices in the securities business" by recommending an investment "without reasonable grounds to believe that the transaction or recommendation was suitable for the customer." He didn't acknowledge wrongdoing.