Community loses $24M in alleged investment scheme
Up to 800 people in Toronto's Caribbean community put their money into the Prosporex Investment Club. The Ontario Securities Commission alleges Prosporex and its key people were "engaged in fraudulent or misleading conduct." The scheme promised returns of up to 20 per cent per month. But few of the investors ever saw any returns, as most of the approximately $24 million disappeared. To make matters worse, Prosporex recruiters helped many investors to borrow the money they needed from a legitimate trust company -- and these same investors are now on the hook for these loans.
When Maula Fowler was approached by a close friend who worked in the financial industry about an investment opportunity, there was no doubt in her mind that she was getting sound fiscal advice.
Fowler and her husband Boswell knew the friend for over 10 years. They trusted him so much that they asked him to be the best man at their wedding and godfather to one of their children.
The investment opportunity was with a company called Prosporex Investment Club Inc. The company was promising to pay as much as 20 per cent in monthly interest, on principal investments. It was such an alluring prospect that many people in Toronto's Caribbean community were eager to take part.
"It felt like there's a big bandwagon of people jumping on board and people are doing really well," said Fowler.
At first she was hesitant to invest, not because she distrusted her friend but because she didn't think that she could afford it. But Fowler's friend told her that he could arrange for a loan in her name through AGF Trust, a reputable financial institution.
Fowler received a $7,500 loan and she invested the full amount with Prosporex. Fowler says the process was very easy. Her friend took care of all the paperwork and no one ever called her for a follow-up. But what at first appeared to be a golden opportunity turned out to be tarnished. Fowler, and hundreds of other investors like her, lost everything.
AGF Trust provided millions in loans to many of the Prosporex investors. The loans were to be invested in RSP eligible investments only. But some of the money was invested by Prosporex in foreign exchange currency markets, in violation of the loan requirements. Both AGF Trust and some investors say they were completely unaware of this violation. In an interview with W5, AGF Trust President and COO Mario Causarano insisted that AGF followed the required rules in making the loans and is not licensed to determine whether the investments were appropriate. He insisted that it was clearly the responsibility of the dealers, who arranged the loans on behalf of the investors, who should have directed the funds into eligible RSP investments as claimed in the loan applications.
The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) is the regulatory body responsible for overseeing Ontario's capital markets. They launched an investigation into Prosporex Investment Club Inc. in 2009 and allege that most of the approximately $24 million of investors' money raised was lost. The OSC's Statement of Allegations claims that "false promises and unrealistic forward looking statements about investment returns were made to the investors."
The OSC further alleges that "few if any investors received the return of their invested capital." Fowler can relate. Not only was her investment gone but she was left to pay back her loan. Like Fowler, most investors were brought in through friends, or acquaintances who were working as the company's recruiters.
The OSC points to three individuals as the architects of this venture: Carlton Ivanhoe Lewis, Sedwick Hill and Mark Anthony Scott are named as the company's "directing minds". The OSC claims that these men "knowingly participated in misleading AGF Trust" and did not direct the loans into appropriate RSP products. The OSC also alleges that each of the three individuals personally gained from this enterprise -- including approximately $3 million that was paid into a New Zealand Bank account to a company that they allege was under Mark Scott's control.
The OSC allegations have yet to be proven before a Hearing of the Commission, currently scheduled for January 2010.
W5 tried to contact Carl Lewis but received no response. The program also tried to speak with Mark Scott about Prosporex Investment Club Inc. and the OSC allegations against him. He did not respond directly but his lawyer sent a brief e-mail that read: "On the advice of counsel Mr. Scott declines your offer."
Sedwick Hill did agree to an interview with W5, during which he pointed most of the blame at Mark Scott and professed his own innocence.
"By and large the majority of the choices were done by Mark Scott," said Hill. "I've met with the OSC. I've been very cooperative with everyone involved in terms of investigating this."
Hill also apologized to investors who lost their money. "I'm very sorry about the whole thing. If I could solve it myself and have the funds myself, I'd take care of it. There's no question about that," he said.
But this is of little comfort to investors like Maula Fowler who lost her investment in Prosporex and who is still on the hook for the $7,500 loan she took out with AGF.