Wall Street watchdog alleges annuity scheme by two ex-MetLife brokers

Mon Mar 31, 2014 7:49pm EDT

Richard Ketchum, chairman and CEO of FINRA, speaks during the Investment Company Institute's (ICI) Capital Markets Conference in New York, October 10, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Richard Ketchum, chairman and CEO of FINRA, speaks during the Investment Company Institute's (ICI) Capital Markets Conference in New York, October 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

(Reuters) - Two former brokers for MetLife Securities Inc, a unit of MetLife Inc, allegedly engaged in a seven-year scheme to inflate commissions by having customers switch $21 million in annuities, Wall Street's industry-funded watchdog has alleged in a civil complaint.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) filed the regulatory complaint against Christopher Birli and Patrick Chapin, who both worked for MetLife in Williamsville, New York, until 2012. The two focused on advising employees of the State University of New York who participated in its retirement plan, FINRA alleged in a March 27 complaint.

Birli did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment. Chapin did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. Efforts to reach Chapin by telephone were not successful.

MetLife, which is not alleged to have engaged in any wrongdoing, terminated Birli and Chapin in 2012, according to filings. Neither presently work in the securities industry, according to filings.

MetLife declined to comment on the complaints against the former brokers but said it maintains a comprehensive compliance procedure.

The two former MetLife brokers, between 2004 and 2007, allegedly recommended that 45 of their customers switch MetLife variable annuities held in their retirement accounts with new variable annuities held in individual retirement accounts (IRAs) outside the university plan, said FINRA.

Birli and Chapin structured the deals in a way to circumvent a MetLife policy that generally prohibited exchanging the two types of variable annuities in the transactions, FINRA alleged. The brokers advised clients to first cash in their retirement plan annuities and buy another security within the plan to hold for 90 days. Clients would then sell that security to buy a variable annuity through an IRA, according to FINRA.

The scheme generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions, FINRA said.

FINRA's complaint is the first step in a disciplinary proceeding that could lead to civil penalties against the former brokers, including suspending or barring them from the securities business. The former brokers will have an opportunity to dispute the allegations before a FINRA hearing officer.

A variable annuity is a type of insurance product that offers investors steady income payments, typically in exchange for a lump-sum investment. Payments can grow if financial markets do well because they are tied to an investment portfolio, usually consisting of mutual funds holding stocks and bonds.

Brokers are well rewarded for selling variable annuities, in part because of their high commissions, as much as 8 percent.

The alleged scheme subjected investors to unnecessary risks, FINRA said. For example, the new annuity contracts tied up the investors' funds for as much as seven years, FINRA said. Some customers also had to pay fees to cash in their initial annuities, FINRA said.

Birli and Chapin allegedly concealed the nature of their scheme from MetLife by submitting "false and misleading" paperwork to MetLife and using their personal email addresses to communicate to customers, FINRA said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Eric Walsh)

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