Cantor Fitzgerald to pay U.S. watchdog $7.3 million for microcap sales

(Reuters) - Cantor Fitzgerald & Co will pay $7.3 million for selling billions of unregistered microcap shares and for lapses in its procedures to detect possible money laundering, Wall Street’s industry-funded watchdog said on Monday.

The now former head of Cantor’s U.S. equity business, Jarred Kessler, and a trader, Joseph Ludovico, were also suspended and fined as part of a settlement between the financial services firm and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The settlement stems from sales of 73.6 billion shares of microcap securities from 2011 to 2012.

A portion of the thinly traded shares was not registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and did not meet requirements for an exemption, FINRA said.

The trading of unregistered securities can signal that the funds are being used for illicit purposes, including money laundering, terrorist financing and market manipulation, according to regulators.

Cantor neither admitted nor denied FINRA’s allegations, according to the settlement. A Cantor spokeswoman declined to comment on behalf of the firm and Ludovico. Kessler’s lawyer in the FINRA action declined to comment.

Kessler, who joined Cantor in 2011, stepped down last week, according to Ross Intelisano, a lawyer who represents Kessler in employment matters. It is unclear whether his departure was related to the FINRA case. A Cantor spokeswoman did not immediately return a call requesting comment on the point.

Kessler, in the settlement, agreed to a $35,000 fine and three-month suspension from management roles. Ludovico, who brokered the trades, agreed to a $25,000 fine and two-month suspension from all his roles, FINRA said.

FINRA found that Cantor’s supervision system was not “reasonably designed” to determine whether the microcap shares it had sold for clients were registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the regulator said.

Cantor, through Kessler, decided to expand its microcap sales business in March 2011, but failed to develop a system for supervising the business that included a “reasonable and meaningful inquiry” into whether the sales were lawful, FINRA said.

Among the problems: Cantor did not adequately train employees about inquiring whether a sale was exempt from registration requirements. In addition, Cantor’s system for detecting suspected money laundering had not been tailored to detect possible illicit asset transfers in the firm’s microcap business, FINRA said.

The $7.3 million penalty includes a $6 million fine and reimbursement of nearly $1.3 million in commissions, plus interest earned by Cantor from sales of the unregistered microcap shares, FINRA said.

Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Paul Simao and Will Dunham