The trial of Rafael Martinez, the CEO of MBE Capital Partners, LLC that was arrested last year for fraud related to PPP lending and borrowing, is slated to begin in May at the earliest, according to the docket. The government accused Martinez of using false representations and documents to fraudulently obtain the approval of the SBA for his company to be a non-bank lender through the PPP. He subsequently used that approval to obtain $932M to issue PPP loans and generate $71M in lender fees. It is the first known case of a PPP lender being charged criminally. Martinez pled not guilty.
“I believe the law can be complied with in a technical sense based on how the statute is written,” said David J. Austin, Esq. of Austin LLP, “however, it opens up a funder to a number of attacks when they’re trying to enforce the funding.”
Austin, an attorney well-read on California’s new commercial financing disclosure law, has created a compliance guide specifically for merchant cash advance funders. Now that the law is in effect, he’s noticed a sudden urgency from small business finance companies to quickly wrap their heads around what they need to be doing.
“There’s nothing ambiguous about certain things in the statutes,” he said. “And it’s very specific, you have to use this font, you can’t use bold or italics, and I discussed that a little bit in [the guide]. It’s very specific about what you need to do.”
Austin imparted some helpful wisdom based upon the risks he sees. First, that funders need not just worry about the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) auditing one’s compliance, but also about what attorneys on the opposite side of the table might attempt to attack if these contracts ever end up in litigation, which they inevitably will. There should be concern, he said, about surrendering some control of the disclosure process to brokers, especially for this reason.
“In my view, the biggest liability in this statute is the broker screwing you up,” Austin said. “I can’t begin to say how important I think it is to—just for that one disclosure, take the broker out of the equation…”
Austin suggested that as far as California is concerned, funders should have direct communication with the merchant early on in the process so that when it comes time to make offers, the funder is able to send the required disclosures to the merchant themselves, and that the broker can simply be included in those communications. This workflow system might depart from one where a broker is accustomed to retaining all control of merchant communications, but Austin is looking at the risks through the lens of a funder.
“I think you just have to say, ‘look, it’s the law and we’re not going to do it any other way,'” he said.
While a much more complete scope of what’s required is all part of the guide he’s offering, he hinted that the “reasonably anticipated true-up” requirement of the disclosure was mostly centered around the knowable seasonality of a business and that he likes the Historical Method of predicting a business’s future sales versus the state’s other allowable option, the Underwriting Method. The Historical Method requires that a funding company examine at least 4 months of a business’s previous history, so if any brokers have been left wondering why a funder has recently started asking for 4 months bank statements instead of 3, this is probably the reason. Austin believes that the Underwriting method, by contrast, creates a lot of extra work, like state audits and additional litigation risk.
“The statute [on the Underwriting Method] is long,” he said. “And like I said, it requires auditing. So the first thing that’s going to happen in any litigation is you’re going to be asked to provide those auditing details.”
Any mca funder curious about compliance, including for access to the full guide, should contact David Austin directly at email@example.com.
Since the law has gone into effect, deBanked has determined that some funders are complying with the law already and are continuing to operate in the state like normal while others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Any funder thinking they can fly under the radar of the DFPI and ignore the regulations should consider that a compliance failure could likely be exposed in litigation.
“We know what the defense counsel is going to do,” said Austin, speaking on merchants’ lawyers using the disclosure requirements as a weapon. “They’re gonna push, push, push, push, push.”
In a simple sense, the question of whether or not commercial finance companies can potentially disregard portions of New York’s commercial finance disclosure law on the basis that a similar federal law (TILA) has the superior claim to the legalities surrounding APR disclosures, has been answered by the CFPB. It says no. The agency believes that the two laws do not conflict with each other on the stated basis that TILA regulates “consumer purpose transactions” hence New York’s law is not preempted by TILA. At this time this is merely the CFPB’s “preliminary determination.” Now it is asking for the public’s thoughts on the matter.
“The CFPB is requesting comment on whether it should finalize its preliminary determination that the New York law – as well as potentially similar laws in California, Utah, and Virginia – are not preempted.”
The timing is a bit curious given that this issue has just been legally raised in another state. The deadline to submit comment to the CFPB is January 20, 2023.
Criminal charges have finally been introduced to the MJ Capital Funding ponzi scheme saga. Last week, 29-year-old Pavel Ramon Ruiz Hernandez was charged by federal prosecutors with Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud. According to the allegations, Hernandez helped manage the operations of MJ Capital and oversaw significant fundraising efforts for the company while knowing that the business was a ponzi scheme. All told, it’s alleged that he and his co-conspirators defrauded investors out of $42 million.
MJ Capital Funding pretended to be an MCA provider but did not actually operate an MCA business, nor was the company known within the MCA industry.
Much of the investigations have focused on Johanna M. Garcia, the CEO of the company, but to date she has not been criminally charged.
If Ruiz Hernandez is convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, the DOJ states. The MJ Capital ponzi scheme is reported to have affected over 9,000 investors.
The criminal trial of Brendan Ross, the former alternative lending hedge fund operator accused of wire fraud, has been postponed to October 11, 2022. It had previously been set for July 26. Both sides agreed to the delay. Ross has been out on bond. He has pled not guilty.
Another alleged SBA fraud scheme has met its end after eight defendants were recently charged in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The group netted $7 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and pre-pandemic Small Business Administration loans. Defendants Frank Hamilton, Michael Jones, Tina Chen, Kenny Tran, Tim Park, Peter An, Joseph Greco, and Edwin Bonilla are all California residents.
Specifically for PPP loans, the conspirators allegedly created transactions designed to give the appearance that the funds were being used for payroll. However, the companies had no payroll and no business activities. As part of the scheme, they allegedly created fake bank statements and false tax documents to prove legitimacy. The defendants are being charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
When a funder is unable to resolve a breach of contract with a customer on its own, litigation may seem like the only option left. But there may be an alternative, a process known as arbitration.
“Arbitration is a creature of contract,” said Zachary Meyer, a partner at a law firm. Meyer is also the co-founder and Chief Administrator of RapidRuling, an arbitration forum that has recently experienced an uptick in cases from the small business finance space. An arbitration forum is an alternative to the courthouse, where disputes are adjudicated by an arbitrator instead of a judge. It’s binding. The prevailing party, for example, can take an arbitrator’s award to the Court and turn it into a judgment.
Meyer told deBanked that part of the original vision for RapidRuling was an entirely online system that would prevent one or both parties from having to incur travel costs to participate. The overall cost of arbitration for a respondent in Montana, for example, would go up if they had to pay for a flight to New York City just to appear for it. “It’s beneficial for the [respondent],” Meyer said.
But in 2019 when RapidRuling first launched, the industry was already well accustomed to relying on AAA, the acronym for the American Arbitration Association. AAA, which was founded in 1926, resolved more than 300,000 total cases in 2019 alone. But then, Covid hit.
“It was like a perfect storm,” Meyer said. As the court system ground to a halt and struggled to move online, an all-online arbitration forum like RapidRuling suddenly had significant appeal. Meyer explained that the forum’s low filing fee compared to alternatives also grabbed attention. It understandably took off.
But the path to arbitration, including which forum to rely upon, may all hinge on the original contract itself, which a funding company’s attorney should carefully draft. Copying and pasting a random contract off the internet, for example, carries great risk, Meyer explained, because one may later discover a boilerplate arbitration clause to be limiting or disadvantageous.
RapidRuling’s website describes its arbitration process in four steps:
1. Submit Your Dispute
2. Wait For Opposing Party To Respond
3. Arbitrator Reviews Submissions
4. Receive An Arbitration Award
Contrast that value proposition to litigation, which depending on the circumstances could be drawn out for years.
RapidRuling seeks out arbitrators that are well-qualified, fair-minded, and diverse. “We have a panel of six arbitrators right now,” Meyer said, “and we’re looking to add more.”
The Alternative Finance Bar Association named Proskauer partner David A. Picon the recipient of the AFBA Greg Nowak Impact Award. Picon, who was also the keynote speaker of the AFBA conference, was selected by the association’s members for his all-around efforts for the legal community both on matters of law and outside of it.
Greg Nowak, who passed away suddenly last year, was a partner of Troutman Pepper and a beloved founding member of the AFBA. His wife and son were both present for the heartfelt moment in Nowak’s honor.