The Lancer Papers

New York Post
By Christopher Byron
July 14, 2003

FOR nearly a year now, we have been pretty much a voice alone in bringing you regular updates on the unbelievable situation lurking behind the closed doors of Park Avenue's Lancer hedge fund group. Our reporting, based on public-record documents available to anyone, revealed that this self-styled $1 billion hedge fund outfit, with its claimed track record of double-digit annual returns to investors, in fact consisted of almost nothing but worthless penny stocks - many controlled by known white-collar criminals and fraudsters.

In an attempt to silence us, Lancer and its founder, a former Wall Street analyst named Michael Lauer, even sued us for libel, claiming that nothing we reported was true, and that both the hedge fund and its founder were pure as new-fallen snow. But they were wrong, and last week the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission weighed in to pronounce the Lancer bunch as dirty as gutter slush.

Firing the biggest guns in its arsenal against Lancer and Lauer, the SEC filed suit in a Miami federal court to declare the operation a fraud, seize its assets and shut it all down.

The SEC action amounts to a complete vindication of what we have been reporting all along, even in the face of the group's efforts to intimidate and silence us through a bogus defamation suit.

It also underscores a welcome, if belated, recognition on the part of Washington regulators under the SEC's new chief, Bill Donaldson, that hedge fund fraud is a huge problem and growing worse daily.

WE'LL get to the implications of the SEC's action for the hedge fund industry in a minute. But first, a look at the 1,800-plus pages of exhibits and supporting documents filed by the SEC last week in support of its complaint.

Frankly, there is no other way to put it: They are simply devastating.

Lancer wasn't just an ordinary hedge fund operation that ran into problems following the market downturn that began in spring 2000.

No, by any fair reading of the evidence, Lancer was the hedge fund industry's answer to Enron - an out-of-control swindle machine that struggled desperately, month after month and year after year, to hide its losses from investors.

The SEC documents show, for example, that at the end of 2002, when Lauer was claiming a total value of roughly $1.1 billion for the holdings in his group's portfolios, three seemingly worthless penny stocks - Biometrics Security Technology Inc., Xtracard Corp. and Fidelity First Financial Corp. - accounted for more than half that claimed value. In other words, half a billion dollars worth of nothing!

All three stocks trade on Wall Street's fraud-drenched pink-sheets market, where the SEC complaint charges that Lauer and his group engaged repeatedly in one fraud after the next to gin up the price of the shares. The alleged goal: To boost the reported value of the funds' holdings so investors wouldn't start cashing in their shares.

Two of the three stocks - Biometrics Security Technology and Xtracard - are the financial equivalent of Siamese twins, sharing a common Boca Raton, Fla., office. That office is a business address for an individual named Laurence S. Isaacson, who is listed in SEC documents as the president of Biometrics Security Technology, as well as a director of Xtracard.

Isaacson is also president of yet another apparently worthless penny stock in the Lancer portfolio: Centrack International Inc., also operating out of the Boca address. And his office is home to still another such penny-stock company in the Lancer group portfolios - Lionshare Group Inc.

None of these Boca-based businesses have up-to-date financials or similar documents upon which to judge their investment appeal. Yet collectively they were carried on Lancer's books at the start of this year at more than $433 million.

Florida incorporation documents reveal that Xtracard, which claims to be in the business of offering "affordable healthcare solutions" to the public, also has an office in Hasbrouk Heights, N.J. The documents show that in April of this year Xtracard Corp. merged with a similar-sounding company called Xtracard Marketing.

Merger documents identify the latter company's CEO as one Jay Fabrikant. In 1996, Fabrikant was a director in a Long Island company called Sterling Vision Inc., in which Lancer was the largest outside shareholder, with 7.4 percent of the stock.

Two years later, Fabrikant pleaded guilty to Medicaid fraud and was sentenced to three years' probation in a case brought by Manhattan D.A. Bob Morgenthau. Now Fabrikant has reconnected with Lauer, through Xtracard.

The Lancer holdings are simply dripping with connections such as these. Back in 2001, the predecessor company to Xtracard - an outfit called Nu-D-Zine Inc. - acquired a stake in a Lancer-controlled penny stock company in Beverly Hills called Total Film Group Inc. One of the founding investors in that outfit was an individual named Abraham Salaman - an ex-con with organized crime connections dating back to the 1970s.

Salaman, who last year pleaded guilty to federal securities fraud charges, has turned up as an investor in at least seven Lancer-held penny stocks over the years.

Another big investor in Total Film Group turns out to be a man named Bruce Cowen. He is identified in SEC filings, as well as in exhibits to the complaint, as a top official in the Lancer organization.

But he is more than that. In 1999 the SEC banned Cowen from serving as officer or director of a public company for five years after he was discovered enriching himself illegally in a stock options scam. And Cowen is now awaiting trial in September on felony charges for allegedly trying to negotiate a kickback out of an undercover FBI agent using stock in a New Jersey company - Lighthouse Fast Ferry Inc. - that was controlled by Lancer.

Altogether, Cowen turns up as an investor in nearly a dozen Lancer-held penny stocks. And his wife, who goes by the name Kathryn Braithwaite, appears as a director on the boards of several more Lancer stocks, including the aforementioned Xtracard.

This, then, is the operation the SEC has set out to shut down.

A lot of stupid, greedy rich people have lost fortunes in this fiasco. Blinded by the funds' claims of over-the-moon returns, they rushed in without ever being shown what Lauer was actually investing their money in.

What's more, no one yet really knows just how much money was wasted in this way, because Lancer's audited financials are by now more than 18 months out of date, though one reasonable estimate would put the total at close to $500 million.

Yet, if nothing else, the horrifying tale of Michael Lauer and his Lancer hedge fund group makes plain enough that the basic rationale for exempting hedge funds from regulatory oversight just doesn't hold water. It may seem logical to say that people with net worths in excess of $5 million are smart enough to look out for themselves in the stock market. But the Lancer matter shows that they are ultimately no different from anyone else.

Rich and poor can become equally greedy at the prospect of a quick killing on Wall Street. And when the opportunities to exercise that greed aren't regulated and controlled, the costs can be devastating.

That is so not just for rich people who get ripped off, but for the equally greedy but less well off folks who also go chasing worthless penny stocks into orbit, never realizing that they themselves are the victims of unseen charlatans.

So it is a good thing that the SEC is moving against Lancer. And after Lancer there are plenty more hedge funds like it that the feds ought to consider taking on next.

 

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