Before Facebook’s IPO, a guy (and we use the term loosely) named Craig Berkman collected piles of cash by brokering deals for shares of the still-private company, says a long list of SEC charges.
Telling people he had special access to the limited pool of available shares, he was able to pull together more than $13 million selling memberships in his own LLCs, which he told naïve investors would use the funds to buy pre-IPO Facebook shares. He conducted roughly the same deals for pre-IPO shares in companies like LinkedIn, Groupon, and Zynga — companies with widespread name recognition and tech industry cachet.
Unfortunately for his investors, however, Berkman never had or acquired any Facebook shares. And now, the SEC has caught up with him (full filing below).
We wouldn’t be so quick to rain condemnation on Berkman if his history wasn’t already besmirched with the same kind of activity over the past couple decades. Sadly, this Facebook stock con was just the latest in a string of financial wrongdoing and was actually a Ponzi scheme intended to clean up some of Berkman’s debts from past fraudulent activities.
In the mid-1990s, Berkman was an Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate married to a pageant queen; he told prominent Portland residents he was a venture capitalist. But he was caught 12 years ago by the Oregon Division of Finance and Securities selling convertible promissory notes without a brokerage license. Seven years later, he was convicted of wrongdoing around a series of fake VC funds, resulting in a $28 million judgement and pursuant bankruptcy.
And that’s when things got really ugly. From the charges:
Instead of using his own money to satisfy these past claims, Berkman spent more than $5.4 million in funds from investors in his pre-IPO offerings to make the payments in the bankruptcy settlement. Berkman also made $4.8 million in Ponzi-like payments to earlier investors in the pre-IPO scheme, falsely telling some of them that they had made money on their investment when in reality he never purchased shares for them. Berkman used approximately $1.6 million of investor money to make large cash withdrawals and pay his own dining and travel expenses.
The SEC’s investigations are ongoing; the commission will soon determine whether or not to block Berkman from future business in this vein and what fines or sanctions he should face.
This sad story reminds us a bit of the tragic tale of Benedict Van, another con artist who preyed on the hype around tech companies in Silicon Valley and inexperienced but enthusiastic investors’ gullibility.
Here’s the SEC’s full charges against Berkman: