Finra fines, suspends two brokers for Reg BI violations

Finra this week fined and suspended two financial advisers, and forced them to pay restitution to customers for violating Regulation Best Interest by churning clients’ accounts.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. alleged that Todd Anthony Cirella and Edward Scott Short traded in senior customers’ accounts at a level that was “excessive, unsuitable, and not in the customer’s best interest” while working at Laidlaw & Co. in Melville, New York.

Cirella’s actions occurred between June 2020 and January 2021, while Short’s violations took place from July 2018 and December 2020. Cirella is still employed at the firm, according to his BrokerCheck record. Short left Laidlaw last October and is no longer registered.

Finra fined each of the brokers $5,000. The broker-dealer self-regulator forced Cirella to pay $27,566 in restitution and suspended him for three months. Short received a seven-month suspension and must pay $116,859 in restitution.

Cirella and Short neither admitted nor denied Finra’s findings but reached an agreement with Finra on the punishment. A number listed for the firm’s Melville office was out of order. The firm’s corporate headquarters in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The actions come three months after Finra’s first Reg BI enforcement case. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed its first Reg BI case last summer. The agency released a risk alert earlier this week warning brokerages about shortcomings in Reg BI compliance.

The latest Finra moves were first reported in WealthManagement.

The SEC finalized Reg BI, as it’s known, in June 2019, and the rule went into force in June 2020. The standard of conduct prohibits brokers from putting their financial interests ahead of their customers’ interests in a good investment return.

The rule is meant to provide stronger investor protection against broker conflicts of interest than the previous suitability rule. Short was charged with violating suitability from July 2018 to June 2020 and Reg BI from June to December 2020.

Excessive trading violates both suitability and Reg BI. In its order, Finra said a turnover rate of six or a cost-to-equity ratio above 20% generally indicate a number of transactions that is too high.

The Finra order said that Short recommended 204 transactions in the account of a customer who was about 80 years old. The activity generated $116,859 in commissions and resulted in approximately $185,000 in trading losses, an annualized cost-to-equity ratio of 76.53%, and an annualized turnover rate of 47.49.

Cirella recommended 46 transactions that generated $27,566 in commissions and resulted in approximately $12,000 in trading losses, an annualized cost-to-equity ratio of 37.65%, and an annualized turnover rate of 20.39. He was working with the account of a customer who was about 70.

In both situations, the customers “relied on [the reps’] advice and routinely followed [their] recommendations,” Finra states in the order. As a result, they exercised de facto control over the customer accounts.

Compliance experts have said Reg BI gives Finra more latitude to charge reps with excessive trading than the organization had under the suitability rule.

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