Approximately 18 months after the Secaucus-based National Realty Investment Advisors (NRIA) was shuttered for fraud after running an elaborate Ponzi scheme, many investors are still seeking refunds.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
Andrea Knoll, who has retained Dan Centner, a law partner at the New Orleans-based firm Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise, as counsel, said in a Zoom interview that she and her husband invested about $600,000 into NRIA over a two- to three-year period.
She said that they had followed NRIA for a few years and had always touted delivering returns of up to 12 percent in their TV and radio ads, so after this coupled with some of their own research, they felt comfortable taking a chance.
“We’re just regular people, we’re not millionaires, we own some real estate, tried to generate some passive income. It’s shocking because we were speaking with various folks with NRIA for probably close to two years before we ended up investing,” Knoll explained.
“We did as much due diligence that we possibly could, it was clear they owned a significant amount of real estate, mostly on the East Coast, so it seemed like a sound investment … One month, payments just didn’t arrive at all and we found out they filed for bankruptcy.”
Knoll added that she and her husband have recouped only $20,000 to $25,000 to date, noting that a class action lawsuit filed against TD Bank, NRIA’s primary banking institution, ended up being dismissed.
“Somewhere in the middle, NRIA counsel sent out packets of information that were probably 20 pages for each one of my investments that, basically saying in extreme legalese, they were forming a liquidation trust and our options were either to opt into the trust – I had to reassign the claim if I opted into the trust,” she recalled.
“If I opted into the trust, they weren’t going to pay us the returns the liquidation would garner. The creditors would be paid first, then the investors, and then the people who opted out of the liquidation trust.”
She continued that she has a sinking feeling that the little amount of money in the liquid trust is being spent on attorneys at New York-based Ice Miller, claiming that investors have no say on what the money is being spent on and that the process is anything but transparent.
“The only thing that matters to me is that we maximize returns for the investors … The last TD Bank lawsuit in a Ponzi Scheme took 13 years: if we do that on an hourly basis, we can wipe out the entire liquidation trust. I really think that it’s a scary possibility that the liquidation trust fund is being spent on lawyers when they should be spent on the creditors and investors.”
Louis T. DeLucia, a partner at Ice Miller and the chair at their bankruptcy and restructuring practice group, said in a lengthy email that NRIA filed for bankruptcy on June 7th, 2022 and the plan of liquidation was effective as of August 25th of this year.
“The objective of the Liquidation Trustee is to maximize the recovery for investors, including maximizing the value of NRIA’s real estate portfolio and pursuing litigation against culpable parties,” he said.
“Ms. Knolls, along with more than 98% of the voting investors overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Plan and contributed (transferred) their claims against third parties relating to NRIA to the Liquidation Trust,” adding that all investors have been invited to Town Hall meetings for updates.
Furthermore, he said that all legal fees were approved by a fee examiner selected by the U.S. Trustee and the Bankruptcy Court, with no objection by any investor.
“Targets and potential targets identified by the Liquidation Trustee as a potential source of recovery are strictly confidential and the Liquidation Trustee does not discuss this subject matter or the terms of any engagement of professionals including whether or not any engagement is undertaken on a contingency basis,” DeLucia continued.
“Moreover, the Trustee is laser focused on the best interests of the investors, which means not making this type of information public to the putative and potential defendants from whom the Liquidation Trustee will be seeking recoveries.”
Centner quipped back that Ice Miller has “made millions off of this engagement and obviously won’t be letting his cash cow go any time soon,” before indicating that his firm solicited no one, retaining Knoll about a year ago and then filing the TD bank lawsuit roughly nine months ago.
“The Trust’s lawyers forced us to dismiss that case after requiring investors like Ms. Knoll to sign coercive ‘assignments’ of their claims. These assignments were anything but voluntary – rather, investors were given the Hobson’s choice of being sued by the Trust or assigning their claims to the Trust. Unsurprisingly, 98 percent of them chose the latter,” he further stated.
“Since then we’ve tried numerous times to engage the Trust and its counsel to discuss getting the case back on track on terms that are favorable for investors, and we have been rebuffed at every turn. Meanwhile the hourly fees continue to accumulate, with no lawsuit in sight.”
Furthermore, he said the trust has a fiduciary duty to all the victims of NRIA’s fraud and they are currently in danger of being victimized again.
“We remain open to further discussions about how we can help NRIA’s investors. But as things stand right now, the only winner in this nightmare is the Ice Miller law firm,” Centner concluded.
DeLucia replied that while the liquidation trustee and advisory board met with Knoll, Centner, and other attorneys she had retained, they ultimately decided to move in another direction.
The demise of NRIA, founded in 2006, was fast and swift beginning in the spring of 2021.
Back in April of that year, a whistleblower alleged that fraud was occurring at the Hudson County real estate fund, just one month after former NRIA Portfolio Manager Thomas Nicholas Salzano was charged by the U.S Attorney’s Office.
He was accused of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft after using a sham loan document to defraud an investor out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then in May, an FBI cooperating witness alleged that Salzano was still privy to company business.
Finally, in June 2021, it all came crashing down, with the New Jersey Bureau of Securities issuing a cease and desist after determining that NRIA engaged in $630 million worth of securities fraud between 2018 and 2022.
Salzano subsequently faced further charges, as did another former company executive, while their ex-sales manager pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud.