The Real Boiler Room

Hollywood's International Currency Management specialized in trading foreign currency -- and helping clients' money disappear

If they do run afoul of the state's telemarketing regulations or federal regulations on futures trading, the civil penalties that result usually mean little, he adds. "When they accrue enough civil claims, they will simply shut down and open across the street in another shell."

The ICM/Forex Fidelity case has been in one court or another for more than a year. In addition to his lawsuit against the sheriff's department, Singer is suing ICM to recover the $700,000 he claims was missing from the business when he bought it. There is also a regulatory action the State of Idaho took against ICM, fining the company for doing business there without being registered and ordering them to make restitution to Christensen. It's a legal imbroglio. But sorting it out provides a good picture of how one South Florida foreign-currency exchange shop worked and the people behind it.

Howard Needle founded International Currency Management in August 1997. His partner, Ellis Kahn, was involved through a Bahamian foreign-currency trading shop in which he has an interest that served in an advisory capacity to ICM. (Neither man would talk to New Times for this story. Reached by phone at his Golden Beach home, Kahn said, "For me to comment how ICM was run when there is pending litigation is not a good idea." Needle did not respond to calls and letters to his beachfront apartment in Miami.)

Wisconsin investor Joanne Hadler got burned twice by foreign-currency exchange shops
Worzella Photography
Wisconsin investor Joanne Hadler got burned twice by foreign-currency exchange shops

Kahn, age 57, pops up with surprising frequency in the databases of both the Commodities Future Trading Commission (CFTC), a federal agency that regulates futures trading, and the National Futures Association (NFA), an industry group that registers and trains traders. Both groups take complaints from customers, and both can issue civil complaints and impose fines.

In 1992 the CFTC fined Kahn $510,000 and the company he represented, JCC Inc., another $50,000. (Kahn was president of JCC at the time). An appeals judge upheld the ruling saying, "… [T]he weight of evidence sufficiently establishes that Kahn was aware -- at least constructively -- of the fraudulent sales solicitation activities and that he had the power to prevent these activities but failed to do so." He also failed to keep good records and adequately supervise employees, the ruling states.

Further, "… Kahn and others taught [employees], when soliciting customers, to minimize risk, to illustrate profit potential with phenomenal or aberrant historical moves, to characterize the $2500 management fee as insignificant compared to potential profits…," according to the ruling. The CFTC believed "… that Kahn's illegal activities render him unfit for registration in any capacity."

Kahn argued that the fine was excessive given his self-estimated net worth of $718,000. But the judge believed Kahn's net worth at the time was closer to $1.3 million and let the fine stand. (Property records show that Kahn paid $600,000 for his five-bedroom, six-bath waterfront home in 1987. Homes in his neighborhood now sell for upward of $1 million.) To date Kahn hasn't paid the fine. With accrued interest the fine is up to $628,000 as of the last accounting in April 1998.

In a 1983 run-in with the CFTC, Kahn found himself fined $208,000 and had his trading privileges suspended for 12 months for violating commodities pool regulations. The NFA has also slapped his wrists repeatedly, fining JCC for using high-pressure sales tactics and not adequately supervising employees and fining Kahn another $150,000 in 1992 for "attempting to cheat, defraud or deceive commodity futures customers…," among other things. That time, the NFA cast him out of its ranks permanently.

Those are the actions brought by the agencies themselves. Kahn has also accumulated 32 customer complaints lodged with the CFTC and 4 more with the NFA that claim pretty much the same things: high-pressure sales, failure to supervise, and failure to disclose risk.

Needle, age 42, is no stranger to the regulatory agencies either. His history with the NFA goes back to 1991, when it issued a four-count complaint against him personally and the company he owned, Futures Financial Advisors of Palm Beach. The complaint charged the company, Needle, and others with fraud and deceit, high-pressure sales tactics, and downplaying risks to investors. Needle settled with the NFA without admitting or denying the charges. His company was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine.

In 1993 Futures Financial Advisors again ran afoul of the NFA for much the same reasons. Again Needle settled without admitting or denying the allegations. He was suspended from the NFA for 60 days, ordered to pay another $25,000 fine, and was permanently barred from supervising any other NFA member or associate. His third transgression came in 1997, when the agency filed a complaint alleging that he used deceptive and misleading promotional material. This time he was suspended for 18 months, though he again neither admitted nor denied the charges.

Customer complaints lodged with the NFA against Needle include charges of failure to follow instructions, misrepresentation, fraud, negligence, and high-pressure sales tactics used to induce unsophisticated clients to invest in corn and wheat futures. The CFTC lists another 13 complaints filed with that agency against Needle and his company.

Kahn has been Needle's mentor for years. According to a source who asked not to be identified, Needle was working as a waiter when Kahn hired and trained him to work in the futures-trading industry.

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