Brokerage tied to a top figure in mob case

By Jim Freer
South Florida Business Journal
March 31, 2005

Management at newly closed securities brokerage LH Ross has included a Parkland resident whom the Broward Sheriff's Office calls a leader of a South Florida organized crime ring.

Salvatore Puccio, a former LH Ross branch manager and broker, was a participant in at least one fraudulent stock sale program at that company, according to a National Association of Securities Dealers complaint.

On Feb. 3, the BSO arrested Puccio and 22 others it said were linked with the Bonanno crime family and involved in crimes including loan sharking, stock market scams, offshore betting, dealing in stolen property and distribution of narcotics.

The BSO did not mention Boca Raton-based LH Ross when it announced those arrests, which are part of an investigation it calls Operation Coldwater.

The NASD did not mention Puccio this week when it announced LH Ross's agreement to cease operations.

But documents The Business Journal obtained from state and federal agencies show that Puccio worked for LH Ross offices in Staten Island, N.Y., and in South Florida from 2000 until 2002. For part of that time, he was listed as the main official in LH Ross's Coral Springs office.

That connection adds a new element to the question of whether organized crime is playing a growing role in securities fraud in South Florida and other major markets.

Since 2000, federal prosecutors in New York have begun several cases in which they charged that organized crime figures controlled small brokerage firms.

The NASD, the securities industry's self-regulatory agency, closed LH Ross following an investigation that included its first-ever cease & desist order against any brokerage firm. Franklyn Michelin, the firm's founder and president, agreed to a permanent ban from the securities industry.

Securities industry re-cords indicate Puccio left LH Ross before 2003, when the NASD said Ross began a sale of its own unregistered stock. Those sales, in which the NASD alleges LH Ross defrauded investors of at least $11 million, prompted the regulator to issue its C&D order.

In another complaint filed in 2003, the NASD said Puccio participated in an LH Ross "scheme to illegally manipulate the market" in the stock of Nevada-based Trident Systems International. At its settlement announced this week, LH Ross accepted charges of fraud in that case.

Neither Puccio nor Michelin could be reached for comment.

None of the others arrested on Feb. 3, including Gerard Chilli of Hollywood, whom the BSO called the local leader for the Bonanno family, were mentioned in NASD and SEC complaints regarding LH Ross.

The BSO called the investigation Operation Coldwater because Chilli lives in an oceanside apartment in Hollywood. The agency said Puccio, 34, was second in command of Chilli's group.

The investigation has led to several indictments that are under seal at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.

"Because this is an open and ongoing investigation that involves several grand jury indictments, we are not allowed to speak about the case," BSO spokeswoman Elizabeth Caldazilla-Fiallo said.

Several people who were arrested on Feb. 3 remain in custody, she said.

Officials of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami did not return phone calls.

Puccio's background

Puccio was a licensed securities broker from 1994 until 2002. From 1994 through 1997, he was listed in NASD records as working for nine different securities firms in New York City and Long Island.

Before joining LH Ross, Puccio worked for Hamilton Shea Group in Pompano Beach in 1997, Paragon Capital in Boca Raton in 1998 and Preferred Securities Corp. in Pompano Beach from 1998 to 2000.

In a civil suit filed in April 2004, the SEC said Puccio, while at Preferred Securities in 1999, was among brokers who organized manipulation in the stock of Coral Gables-based Orex Gold Mines.

The SEC, in the case filed in federal court in Miami, is seeking restitution and fines from Puccio, five other former Preferred Securities brokers and three Orex officials.

Discovery is on hold in the case. Officials of Orex are defendants in a related criminal case in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y. Puccio is not a defendant in the case.

The civil suits maintain Orex and the brokers used false promotional materials to sell shares of Orex, which claimed to be in the business of extracting gold from iron ore.

Orex is no longer registered to do business in Florida, according to the state Division of Corporations.

The NASD complaint regarding Trident maintains that Puccio in late 2000 or early 2001 "at a restaurant in Boca Raton" introduced Michelin to an executive of Trident, which promoted itself as a mining company.

The complaint includes reports of several investors who said they suffered large losses in Trident stock. The NASD said LH Ross bought Trident for its own account at lower prices and sold it to clients at higher prices.

"LH Ross realized profits of more than $1.4 million" in Trident sales, the NASD said.

The closing of LH Ross "is important for investors for several very important reasons," said James Shorris, senior VP and deputy in NASD's enforcement division.

The agreement provides NASD with a successful conclusion to its first effort to use its C&D authority and a new authority to issue summary suspensions against brokerages, he said.

NASD is continuing its investigation, which could lead to bans for other LH Ross brokers, he added.

NASD officials would not comment on Puccio.

The LH Ross offices where Puccio worked in New York and South Florida were part of the firm's satellite network that several years ago included offices in about a dozen states and had about 180 brokers. Those offices had their own licenses, but used LH Ross to clear trades and pay compliance expenses with regulators.

Several states take action

Michelin, a 35-year old Montreal native, founded LH Ross in 1995. NASD records show LH Ross has been fined or suspended by securities regulators in several states.

That includes the Florida Division of Securities fining the firm $25,000 and Michelin $5,000 in 2001 for "unregistered activities and failure to supervise."

In August, the NASD made LH Ross the subject of its first-ever temporary cease & desist order. The SEC gave the NASD that authority last year, with a goal of helping move more quickly to suspend and close firms that were engaging in illegal activities.

In its temporary order and its permanent C&D, issued Jan. 19, the NASD said LH Ross violated securities laws in the 2003 and 2004 private placement sales of its own stock.

That included not registering the offering with the SEC, not providing buyers with written details of purchases and ignoring complaints about the offerings.

The NASD said it used the C&D powers for the first time ever against LH Ross because the firm had ignored previous orders to stop selling shares of its own stock.

About 150 investors, including some in South Florida, lost about $11 million in buying that stock, the NASD's C&D said.

LH Ross filed an appeal to prevent the NASD from closing its operations.

Michelin said in January the NASD had "totally wronged" his firm and targeted it for "extinction" because it had a bias against small firms that were selling offerings of their own stock.

On Feb. 28, the NASD suspended LH Ross and ordered it to close, based on its finding that the firm could no longer safely do business.

LH Ross shut its offices the following week and filed an appeal for a hearing, but instead accepted the NASD's order to close permanently.

In February, LH Ross's other remaining satellite offices were in Islandia, N.Y., and at 3098 Stirling Road in Hollywood.

The Hollywood office in March became an office of Internet Capital Markets, according to the Florida Division of Securities. Brussels, Belgium-based Internet Capital has an office in Boca Raton.

Boca Raton resident Marc Drimer, Internet Capital's owner, declined to comment.

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