Stockbroker Ami Forte's affair with Roy Speer, co-founder of St. Petersburg's Home Shopping Network, began in the late 1990s. She was in her early 40s, working for Bank of America. Speer, among the richest men in Tampa Bay, was in his latter 60s with a long reputation for extra-marital affairs.
Soon after securing Speer's personal brokerage business, worth anywhere form $150 to $200 million, Forte brought Speer's fat account with her to Morgan Stanley.
For much of Speer's remaining years, he met with Forte, often weekly in the afternoon, in a house he kept for entertainment purposes, apart from his life at home with wife. As Speer aged, he would get upset if he did not see Forte, making her role in the relationship all the more important while Morgan Stanley seemingly milked the Speer account with a high volume of trades and big dollar commissions.
The affair lasted nearly a dozen years, including the last few when Speer's health and mental capacity required him to wear a diaper and tests revealed memory gaps and his struggle to perform simple math.
But Speer's accounts, still controlled by Forte, churned merrily along. In the last five years of his life, Speer's account saw 12,000 transactions that generated nearly $40 million in commissions. Speer died in 2012 at age 80.
Speer's wife of half a century, Lynnda, only gained full control of her husband's brokerage account after his death. She then realized the excessive trading that had occurred while Speer's health had deteriorated. She hired Tampa Bay veteran securities lawyer Guy Burns, who had represented consumers in a financial case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
Lynnda Speer wanted to try and recoup the losses and punish the greed she saw exercised by Forte, her husband's ex-mistress, and a Morgan Stanley firm that did effectively nothing to police her financial actions.
Long story short: This past week, a 3-person arbitration panel ruled that Morgan Stanley, Forte and Morgan branch manager Terry McCoy were guilty of elder exploitation, breach of fiduciary duty, constructive fraud, unauthorized trading and churning Roy Speer's accounts, along with negligence, negligent supervision and unjust enrichment.
The panel awarded Lynnda Speer $32.8 million, plus costs and legal feels likely to be several million more.
To arrive at that decision, the arbitration panel met repeatedly with Lynnda Speer, Forte, Morgan Stanley, their attorneys and others named in the dispute from Jan. 20, 2015, through Feb. 16 in 142 hearing sessions spanning 70 days, 35 witnesses, and boxes of evidentiary exhibits.
Burns offered an inside glimpse and some key perspective on this lengthy, behind-closed-door process in a recent interview.
In the end, Lynnda Speer "won" but neither side in the case seems especially satisfied. Speer and attorney Burns pursued punitive damages against Morgan Stanley, Forte and others for elder abuse — reaping huge commissions from a Roy Speer suffering from diminished capacity. An arbitration award that could have approached $476 million became $34 million and change. Morgan Stanley would point out the relatively small award — modest at least when compared to what it could have been — as some vindication of their side of the story.
But the sum was big enough for Morgan Stanley to say goodbye this past week to Forte, once one of its star brokers who carried the title of managing director. That's a big comedown from 2013 when the Tampa Bay Business Journal named Forte its regional "BusinessWoman of the Year." She also has served on multiple area boards, including Ruth Eckerd Hall, and volunteered for several years at Ronald McDonald House Charities, among other prominent organizations.
"I can confirm she is no longer employed," Morgan Stanley spokeswoman Christine Jockle told the Tampa Bay Times.
Was Forte fired? Wall Street firms don't use such words when brokers are shown the door. But after an arbitration panel, part of Wall Street's very own Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (known as Finra), finds a broker engaged in everything from elder abuse and fraud to unauthorized trading and unjust enrichment, it's probably a good sign that continued employment at Morgan Stanley is doubtful.
Forte, for now, isn't commenting and still faces some pending litigation. But Morgan Stanley, Forte and McCoy have denied the allegations.
During the many, many hearings of the past year, Forte attended most of them. She typically dressed conservatively, favoring dark pants suits, large glasses and little jewelry. At times, she testified. At other times, she cried. Most of the time, she was stoic.
How could so many transactions of such a big account as Roy Speer's go unpoliced by Morgan Stanley? If Forte approved 12,000 transactions for $40 million in commissions over the last five years, that means the account sustained more than nine transactions every single business day. Why would someone like Roy Speer — in the very twilight of his life — need such an extreme pace of what is obviously churning of his account?
Memos from senior Morgan Stanley officials, seeing documents of such trading activity, were sent to the brokerage's Palm Harbor office asking what was going on. They vacillated between patting office manager Terry McCoy on the back for such healthy commissions and urging he bring the account activity down to more typical volumes. McCoy would say he was on top of the situation. He had asked Forte if she was intimately involved with Speer. She denied it.
Morgan Stanley would argue in the arbitration hearings that Speer's account was making money, so what was everybody so excited about? As Burns pointed out: Sure, the account was growing at a 2 percent clip. But the commissions earned off the account were growing by 5 percent.
That's no formula for a growing account.
In the end, the arbitration panel awarded Lynnda Speer $32.8 million. That's essentially the same amount of commissions Forte and Morgan Stanley earned between 2009 and 2012. Speer had sought damages from trading activity prior to 2009, but Roy Speer's account records prior to then had been damaged while in storage or destroyed. That nullified the panel awarding any larger amount.
Half of the $32.8 million will go to Roy Speer's charitable foundation while the other half will got to the Speer family, including Roy's now grown children.
"We were not happy with the panel's decision to limit damages," Burns said in the interview. "We are happy, though, that the ruling found they had committed all these wrongdoings."
Added Lynnda Speer in a statement: "We are hopeful the outcome of this case will prevent other elderly investors from being taken advantage of by their stockbrokers."
Burns and Scott C. Ilgenfritz, both of the Johnson Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns law firm in Tampa, represented the Speer interests.
Burns said there are some larger lessons in this case.
First, people should pay attention to elderly relatives or friends who have investments to make sure they are not being taken advantage of by their own brokers or caretakers.
Second, he said, be aware from the start of the difficulties of fighting any wrongdoing in brokerage accounts.
The financial industry set up Finra to keep most financial disputes out of court and to skew the outcome in favor of stock brokers and their investment firms, he said. Lynnda Speer already had the financial clout to pay the high costs of pursuing her claims against Forte and Morgan Stanley. Most people do not, he said. And in a majority of cases Finra arbitration panels choose to award nothing.
A customer with a $100,000 grievance against a broker, Burns said, is unlikely to win much if anything back in a Finra resolution, even if that 6-figure sum sounds like a lot to most folks. Be vigilant of any brokerage account, he urged, to catch any improprieties early.
Does the outcome of this case send any message to the financial industry?
"I hope so," Burns said, but I'm guessing from his tone he's just trying to be optimistic. "It remains to be seen."
Editor's note: This column has been updated to reflect Ami Forte served as a volunteer but was not on the board of Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay on Twitter.