Merrill Lynch was fined $500,000 by Massachusetts securities regulators for failing to stop a rogue broker from defrauding clients.
Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith Inc. failed to notice patterns of behavior by a financial adviser that suggested she was in financial trouble, regulators said Thursday.
Federal prosecutors and regulators said the adviser, Jane E. O'Brien, who has since resigned, borrowed more than $2 million of clients' money, and in one case used money a client intended to invest in a software company for her own personal expenses.
Ms. O'Brien had been a top producer for Merrill's Boston office, bringing in nearly $154 million in client assets and earning $903,734 in revenue for the firm in her first year, regulators said.
“By the time she was questioned about her financial withdrawals, she had already borrowed money from her clients,” a violation of the law, William F. Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of the commonwealth, said in a statement. Mr. Galvin's office oversees the commonwealth's securities regulators.
“This in my estimation is yet another example of top producers often being held to a different standard because of the revenue they bring into the firm.”
Merrill agreed to the $500,000 fine for its “failure to supervise” but did not admit to violating the law.
“When we became aware of the matter two years ago, and began investigating, the financial adviser resigned,” said Bill Haldin, a spokesman for Merrill's parent company, Bank of America Corp. “We will be reaching out to affected clients to address any remaining issues.”
Ms. O'Brien prematurely removed $380,750 from her own retirement account at Merrill Lynch, and regulators said those withdrawals, which incurred tax penalties, might have been a sign to the company that she was in financial trouble. But Merrill did not inform Massachusetts securities regulators about reviewing her conduct until six days after she was indicted by the Justice Department, the regulators said.
Ms. O'Brien pleaded guilty to fraud last year and has been barred from the securities industry. In May, she was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $240,000 in restitution.
In a separate action, Massachusetts fined another firm, Sentinel Securities Inc., $50,000 for failing to supervise an operations manager who has been accused of shifting funds from the firm's accounts to his own, according to the statement.