Brokerage's ostrich PR won't 'earn your trust'

The Baltimore Sun

There are two possible ways to interpret the temporary or permanent departure of four top executives and two traders from securities brokerage Ferris Baker Watts.

One: Maybe the company is bending over backward to cooperate with a federal investigation that will turn out - for Ferris - to be a minor problem of paperwork and procedures.

Two: Maybe the disruption signifies that Ferris Baker abetted an alleged $50 million Ponzi scheme.

In either case, there is only one label for the way the Baltimore firm has handled disclosure of the situation. Terrible.

After the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department launched inquiries into stock trades by a $50 million Ohio investment fund, the firm stayed silent. After Ferris Baker hired its own independent investigator, the firm stayed silent.

After Ferris Baker's top lawyer, its director of institutional sales, its private-client chief and its head of retail sales stepped aside to let the inquiries proceed, the firm stayed silent until an informed source concerned about the lack of disclosure tipped The Sun and reporters inquired. Even then it responded in pieces, giving a full picture only last week.

The company whose chairman, George M. Ferris Jr., says "We want your business; we'll earn your trust," certainly could have done a better job of letting the outside world know what was going on.

"I think that's probably a fair criticism," Ferris said when I reached him on the phone Friday.

"We were, I guess, a little shocked to find the extent of this situation. So we were concentrating immediately on our dealings with the people that counted most at the time - namely the regulators - to make sure they had everything they needed," Ferris said.

Good for him. Admitting a mistake is a step toward avoiding a repeat.

Ferris Baker is privately held and not required to make the same disclosures as companies with public shareholders.

But as a public trust, it has a greater interest than most companies to be open with outside stakeholders. Its product is money, and its associates sometimes hold a fiduciary interest to clients. This isn't an inquiry into a hardware store.

The good news is that Ferris Baker says no clients lost money in the business under investigation, which involved rapid trading through Ferris and several other brokerages by IPOF, a Cleveland investment fund.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has alleged that IPOF head David A. Dadante operated a Ponzi scheme and misappropriated millions of dollars for his own use.

A former broker assigned to IPOF's account, Stephen J. Glantz, left a Ferris Baker office in Cleveland in 2005. Glantz has denied any impropriety and told The Sun that others at the firm often handled Dadante's orders.

The fact that Ferris Baker has hired lawyers to investigate and that employees have stepped aside to let inquiries proceed suggests the firm wants to get to the bottom of the situation.

"We've been cooperating fully with the regulators on the matter to help them and to help ourselves, in a sense," Ferris said.

Changes coming

"There will be some changes, and I think we will end up being an even better firm now as a result of these changes," Ferris said. He declined to comment further.

There is no indication that anyone who has retired or is on leave did anything wrong. As The Sun reported Friday, general counsel Theodore W. Urban took voluntary leave in November and retired last week. Horace D. Usry Jr., director of institutional sales, went on leave in early January and resigned last week.

Two institutional traders are on temporary leave, as are Louis J. Akers Jr., director of the private client group, and Patrick Vaughan, head of retail sales.

Diverging needs

But Ferris Baker took its sweet time saying what was going on. It took weeks to confirm all the rumored absences in the wake of the inquiries, and it has never identified what investigators are looking at.

I understand there are diverging needs when regulators come knocking on the door.

Companies want to preserve the privacy of employees who may have done nothing wrong. Lawyers urge clients under inquiry to say nothing. Regulatory probes by definition involve uncertainty, and publicity folks prefer to resolve uncertainty before putting out news releases.

But in the end, the ostrich strategy often backfires. It's not just bad for the stakeholders. When rumors fly and people wonder why disclosure came so late, it's bad for the ostrich, too.

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