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U.S. jury gives SEC quick win in fraud case against Boston adviser

By Stuart Gittleman and Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) - A Boston federal jury took two hours to decide that a local investment adviser had fraudulently lured his former brokerage customers to his new firm, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said late on Wednesday.

The SEC's 2010 civil lawsuit against Boston-based Sage Advisory Group LLC and its owner, Benjamin Lee Grant, alleged they had engaged in securities fraud by misleading Grant's former customers at brokerage Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc, to transfer their assets to Sage.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, where the case was decided, will impose sanctions in the coming months. The SEC is seeking civil penalties and other relief, as well as an order that Grant and Sage return profits they received as a result of the fraud.

Grant did not immediately respond to a message left at a number for Sage on Thursday morning. Another phone number for Grant was not working.

"This case sends an important message to investment advisers that they must put the needs of their clients before their own," Andrew Ceresney, the SEC's enforcement director, said in a statement.

SEC-registered advisers must act in client's best interests, or as fiduciaries. Grant violated that requirement, the SEC said.

Grant was a broker for Wedbush until he left in 2005 to launch Sage. His customers' accounts totaled about $100 million in assets, almost all of which were managed by First Wilshire Securities Management, an investment adviser in Pasadena, California.

After leaving Wedbush, Grant falsely told his former customers that it was First Wilshire's idea to move their accounts from Wedbush to a discount broker and that he had formed Sage to handle their investments, the SEC said.

Representatives for Wedbush and First Wilshire were not immediately available to comment before California business hours on Thursday.

Grant also told his customers that charges for their accounts would change from a 1 percent management fee for First Wilshire plus trading commissions for Wedbush to a 2 percent "wrap fee" at Sage. He also falsely told customers that the new fee arrangement was historically less expensive than the prior one.

But Grant did not reveal to customers that trading commissions at the discount brokerage were significantly less than at Wedbush, the SEC said. The arrangement ensured that Grant, not his customers, would most likely benefit from the new 2 percent fee.

Grant also falsely told customers that First Wilshire was no longer willing to manage their assets at Wedbush and that they had to sign up with Sage to avoid a disruption of services, the SEC said.

The plan worked, the SEC said. Nearly all of Grant's Wedbush customers moved to Sage and his compensation doubled from less than $500,000 while at Wedbush to more than $1 million at Sage.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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