It’s a good thing for Wall Street’s cops that they have a guy like Anastasios “Tommy” Belesis to kick around, because they would have to invent him if they didn’t.
The 38-year-old founder and chief executive officer of John Thomas Financial Inc. probably could have had a fabulous career as a professional wrestler. He nailed the villain look: brawny and bald, like the Iron Sheik of 1980s World Wrestling Federation fame, only without the mustache. He has a reputation for physically intimidating opponents. And he is great on camera. Director Oliver Stone even cast him in his sequel to the movie “Wall Street.”
Belesis, instead, chased riches on Wall Street -- as in the actual street. You know, that place in lower Manhattan where the securities industry used to reside, before everything went digital and the big firms sought roomier digs in Midtown. Today, it is home to bucket shops and boiler rooms that want a Wall Street address so they can brag about it to customers and employees who don’t know any better. One such denizen is John Thomas Financial, founded in 2007 with a faux blue-blood name and located at 14 Wall St.
The other main benefit of having a Wall Street address is proximity to the giant television studio called the New York Stock Exchange. Look at John Thomas Financial’s website and you will notice links to dozens of recent television clips of Belesis and his underlings yapping with hosts on cable-TV news channels. It goes to show: If a Wall Street CEO has nothing better to do than spend large chunks of his time on talk shows, there’s a good chance it’s a bad idea to hand his firm your money.
A publicity photo of the CEO with a failed presidential candidate is another telltale red flag. So is being named Bronx GOP Man of the Year, or going on a PR blitz about hiring an Occupy Wall Street protester with a doctorate for a low-wage job.
This week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority accused Belesis and John Thomas Financial of front-running customers’ trades in a penny stock called America West Resources Inc. The Securities and Exchange Commission last month accused Belesis and his firm of fraud in a separate matter. They have denied any wrongdoing and said they would defend themselves.
According to Finra, the website AwesomePennyStocks.com on Feb. 23, 2012, sent an e-mail telling subscribers that it soon would be issuing a new tout. Finra said the e-mail “appeared to ‘accidentally’ identify the pick” as America West, which sent the stock up more than 600 percent to $1.80 in less than an hour. About 15 John Thomas customers called in sell orders. Then things got ugly.
Finra said Belesis prevented employees from executing most of the sell orders -- and even threatened some of his brokers. That same day, the firm sold more than $1 million of its own shares in America West, a Salt Lake City-based coal company that had been an investment-banking client. The stock soon crashed.
Finra didn’t say who put Awesome Penny Stocks up to the task. Regardless, here were a bunch of customers who dared to chase every retail investor’s dream: a rare shot at profiting on the dumping end of a can’t-miss pump-and-dump strategy. And Belesis allegedly robbed them of their opportunity to fleece the idiots buying America West’s stock.
America West, by the way, filed for bankruptcy on Feb. 1.
All of this raises the natural question: What is it with the flurry of cartoon crooks lately? The former KPMG LLP partner in charge of auditing Herbalife Ltd.’s financial statements, Scott London, was arrested last week. The feds photographed him in a parking lot taking a paper bag full of cash from his golfing buddy in exchange for inside information about KPMG clients.
Kareem Serageldin, the former head of Credit Suisse Group AG’s structured-credit trading business, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge last week. He was caught on tape plotting with colleagues to mismark their books and boost their bonuses.
This week, a former Rochdale Securities LLC trader, David Miller, pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges. He bought more than $1 billion of Apple Inc. stock last year without authorization -- and destroyed his tiny firm in the process. Also this week, the founder of Full Tilt Poker, Raymond Bitar, pleaded guilty to two felonies after prosecutors accused him of using online players’ money to finance his Ponzi scheme of a company.
Maybe Wall Street needs people like these. Their schemes are so over the top, they make other more pernicious white-collar offenses seem technical and dull, such as lying about a huge, insolvent bank’s financial condition. The government didn’t indict any of the big fish who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis. But the stupidest, most colorful guppies are fair game.
Like pro wrestlers, at least they are good for a few laughs.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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