Wausau broker, investment advisor used nearly $2 million in clients’ money for personal, business expenses

7 Investigates
Updated: Dec. 13, 2022 at 9:00 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - A Wausau broker and investment agent is barred from practicing after public records show he did not invest nearly $2 million his clients had entrusted to him. State records show it happened to at least a dozen people around Wisconsin and Michigan.

Tony Liddle has been an investment advisor and broker in both Rhinelander and Wausau for about a decade. According to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions Division of Securities, he and his co-owner and then-wife, Allison, organized their own investment advisory firm, Prosper Wealth Management in May of 2016. They cut the ribbon and opened the doors of the official office in downtown Wausau in February 2017.

Between that time, according to the PWM website which has since been taken down, Liddle received WomenCertified’s Women’s Choice Award for Financial Advisors and Firms in 2016. One of his clients told 7 Investigates the award was part of why she chose to invest with him. PWM offered investment advisement, retirement planning, financial planning services, and brokerage services.

Prior to Liddle owning and operating his own investment firm, he worked for Brad Sarkauskas as a client services representative under Sarkauskas & Associates in Rhinelander. Liddle ultimately purchased one of the S&A franchise locations and assets which became PWM.

Now, Sarkauskas is representing several of Liddle’s investment clients who say Liddle stole their money. It began in May with Sarkauskas receiving a call from the daughter of a friend and former legal client who had invested with Liddle.

“The daughter had expressed concerns that, that she thought there were irregularities, and asked me to take a look at some transactions and the account,” Sarkauskas said. “Upon reviewing some, some basics, I also thought there were some irregularities, requested some more documentation, and immediately discovered what I believed to be the very obvious theft of $40,000.”

In May, DFI audited Liddle and PWM and laid out some of those irregularities in an order it issued in June listing some of its investigative findings. It stated Liddle met with an 80-year-old client in her home in June 2021 to talk to her about potentially purchasing L Bonds through GWG Holdings.

Following Liddle’s advice, the woman wrote a check to “Prosper Wealth” for $40,000, with the expectation that it would purchase those bonds. Instead, DFI notes it was deposited into a bank account Liddle controlled. It would have been difficult for Liddle to purchase the bonds anyway, as “GWG Holdings suspended L Bond sales in April 2021, two months prior to the date Liddle accepted” the woman’s money to be invested, according to DFI’s order.

Despite not purchasing the bonds, DFI states Liddle sent his client a statement showing the money in the GWG Holdings account and indicating she would receive monthly payments of $185. Then, Liddle would pay her the $185 each month, but the funds did not come from any investments he made on her behalf.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and I guess that was always the concern that the minute this came up is ‘Oh boy, is this it? Is this it?’” Sarkauskas said about determining the scope of the conduct.

DFI’s order document states Liddle told the securities division investigators that he started to receive what he called “loans” from clients in 2020, including this 80-year-old woman.

According to the findings, the broker-dealer Liddle was a registered broker for, Landolt Securities, did not authorize the sale of the GWG Holdings bonds. Liddle was registered as a broker with Landolt Securities between April 2020 and May 2022. Landolt Securities separated from Liddle after DFI’s allegation.

Liddle told securities investigators he had promissory notes proving the existence of the loans, but never gave copies to his clients. A later, updated DFI order adds that clients told investigators they never authorized any loans.

According to a Wausau Police Department report from June, Sarkauskas alleges Liddle used his notary stamp with his name misspelled on at least some of the clients’ financial documents. The officer notes the handwriting of “Anthony Liddle” and “Bradley Sarkauskas” showed similarities in letters.

“At least one of those documents was filed with the Register of Deeds in Wisconsin, transferring a piece of property,” Sarkauskas explained. “And it was stamped with my notary; I did not sign it; I was not present at that.”

He said Liddle’s clients who had documents with this notary say Liddle was there at the signing, but Sarkauskas was not.

DFI’s order at the beginning of June placed a permanent bar on Liddle from registering with the division and effectively working in the investment industry. The order listed three law violations:

  • Through the conduct described above, Liddle engaged in dishonest or unethical practices in the securities businesses in violation of Wis. Stat. §§ 551.412(4)(m) and Wis. Admin. Code DFI-Sec 5.06(6).
  • Through the conduct described above, Liddle is subject to discipline pursuant to Wis. Stat.§ 551.412(4)(m) because he borrowed money from clients in the amount of $1.8 million.
  • Through the conduct described above, Liddle violated Wis. Stat. § 551.501(2), when he, in connection with the offer, sale or purchase of a security, directly or indirectly, omitted to state material facts necessary in order to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading, including the failure to inform MR (client) that GWG Holdings had suspended L Bond sales in April 2021 and that he was not authorized to sell them.

On June 7, Liddle signed a form saying he was not going to contest the order and waived his right to a hearing about the findings and conclusions.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is authorized by Congress to protect American investors, tried to do its own investigation in June, days after DFI’s initial order. FINRA stated as part of its conclusion that in addition to DFI’s findings, Liddle refused to produce information and document or testify, per FINRA rules. Liddle filed a letter accepting the alleged violations as stated by FINRA on the condition that FINRA would not bring any future actions based on those findings. FINRA accepted and barred him from association with FINRA.

In an updated investigation and order filed in Marathon County Circuit Court in September, DFI listed 13 people from around Wisconsin and two from Michigan who invested with Liddle between March 2019 and July 2021. The total invested between the 13 people was upwards of $1.9 million.

DFI states these funds were meant to be used for investments including but not limited to purchasing L Bonds through GWG Holdings, with an annual fixed rate payment to clients of 5.5% or more.

Liddle followed the same pattern as laid out in the previous order, with the updated version adding that instead of investing the money, he used the “funds for personal and business expenses and to pay down debt.”

It states Liddle used some of those funds to make those monthly payments to certain clients that “lulled investors into believing that Liddle had invested their money as he had promised.” He provided payments for nine of the 13 investors in total nearly $256,000; the others received no payment.

All of the investors DFI interviewed denied making loans to Liddle or PWM and either denied or could not remember signing any promissory notes.

The September order updated the three previously noted violations and included two more:

  • Through the conduct described above, the Respondents are subject to discipline for engaging in dishonest or unethical practices in the securities business in violation Wis. Stat.§ 551.412(4)(m).
  • As described above, Liddle violated Wis. Stat.§ 551.505 when he made or caused to be made in a record that is used in an action or proceeding or filed under this chapter, one or more statements that, at the time and in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, were false, misleading in a material respect, or, in connection with the statements, omitted to state a material fact necessary to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not false or misleading.
  • Through the conduct described above, the Respondents violated Wis. Stat.§ 551.501(2), when they, in connection with the offer, sale or purchase of a security, directly or indirectly, omitted to state material facts necessary in order to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading.
  • Through the conduct described above, the Respondents violated Wis. Stat.§ 551.501(3), when, in connection with the offer, sale, or purchase of a security, they engaged in an act, practice or course of business that operated as a fraud or deceit upon another person.
  • Through the conduct described above, the Respondents employed a device, scheme, or artifice to defraud, and engaged in an act, practice, or course of business that operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon the investors identified in Table 1 in violation of Wis. Stat. Wis. §§ 551.502(1)(a) and 551.502(1)(b) by using investors’ money in a manner contrary to what they had represented, and for Liddle’s personal benefit.

Again, Liddle signed a waiver and consent form in August saying he was not going to contest the order and waived his right to a hearing about the findings and conclusions.

The investors and their investments

The Prosper Wealth Management website, which has since been taken down, stated several times throughout how it works to help clients understand what they need to create their “best life.”

“We know the financial industry can be overwhelming. Planning your best life means seeking out the advice of a financial professional you can trust and will understand you,” it stated on its “Why Choose Us” page.

DFI’s September order states 10 of the 13 investors were at least age 65 or older.

“One individual is, I believe, 73 years old. Her spouse died 10 years ago, about,” Sarkauskas said. “She’s been retired for seven years, 73 years old, and she’s returned to work in a factory sewing, which she loves to do, but she likes to do it for pleasure. She’s doing it now so she doesn’t lose her home.”

It is a life unlike the Liddles’. Public Facebook posts show that they went on at least half a dozen vacations in 2021 alone.

Land records and bankruptcy filings showed they owned a home in Stettin that sold in July for $725,000.

Leading up to Sarkauskas’ discovery in May, Wausau Police arrested Liddle in February for driving while intoxicated, with a blood-alcohol concentration double the legal limit. Wausau Police report witnesses saw him crash into a light pole, leave the scene, and slide into a snow bank, with officers noting his driver’s side tires were flat and he was driving on the rims.

He and his wife filed for divorce in April. It was finalized in September.

On June 1, his wife reported to Marathon County dispatch that Liddle was acting strangely, saying he was upset because of financial issues within the investment business they owned together. As noted in the Wausau Police report, she estimated about $2 million was missing. She also stated Liddle “admitted to embezzling from their business,” and she had informed Liddle an audit was about to begin.

Liddle told police “he had a bunch of bad things going on in his life right now and he was having a rough time. Anthony explained he was upset over his marriage ending and he had not been doing right by his clients from his financial investment business.”

In September Liddle’s now-ex-wife filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy and Liddle did the same in November. Liddle ended up with far fewer assets when the couple split. He listed about 15% of his ex-wife’s total. About 40% of Liddle’s total assets he is claiming as exempt.

Their filings show they share many of the same liabilities, including Liddle’s former clients, though his ex-wife lists all of the debts related to PWM as “alleged personal liability claim for former spouse at Prosper Wealth Management.”

That includes debt the couple owed in a settlement to Sarkauskas and his family from a 2018 Milwaukee civil case. Sarkauskas Enterprises and the Sarkauskas family members associated with the business sold some of their franchises and assets to the Liddles and their company, Sark Investments in 2012. Years later, Sark Investments would merge into the Liddles’ other company, Prosper Wealth Management.

Court documents state the couple signed promissory notes to make certain monthly payments for nine years. They were making those payments until October 2018. A few weeks after the payments were due, the Sarkauskases filed suit saying they violated the terms of the sale agreements, and that the acceleration provisions in the contract were owed, specifically the entire unpaid balance of the sale agreement. The two sides ultimately settled.

Liddle’s ex-wife included the debt from this case in her bankruptcy filings, Liddle himself, did not.

In total Liddle is reporting more than $3.3 million in liabilities. As for the more than $1.6 million Liddle is ordered to pay in restitution to his former clients, Sarkausaks said realistically, Liddle probably will not be able to pay the debt.

“I think Mr. Liddle is going to have serious issues to contend with, but I hope that things work out very well and he’s able to pay this money back and he has a bright future someday. But in the meantime, we have people who are struggling and, and, and risk losing their homes. So yeah, I hope he’s able to pay him back.”

Supervising entities

Liddle was a registered broker under two different brokerage firms during the time the 13 clients first invested with him. Generally, brokerage firms have supervisory requirements over their registered agents.

Western International Securities, which Liddle was registered under between 2012-2020, did not ultimately respond to 7 Investigates’ request to interview and comment. Disclosures through FINRA note 18 events, including several alleging supervisory rule violations, including during timeframes Liddle was registered with WIS.

Liddle was registered under Landolt Securities from April 2020 until May 23, 2022 when it allowed Liddle to resign due to the allegations against him. Landolt declined a request to interview, but Lloyd Schwed, its’ attorney provided a statement and answered some questions over email. Schwed said though he was a registered agent and authorized to sell approved securities through Landolt, “Tony Liddle never conducted any securities business through Landolt Securities,” which includes actions like selling bonds or stocks.

While DFI noted examinations and related findings are not public information, Schwed said Wisconsin securities regulators conducted their own audits of Liddle and PWM in 2020 and 2021 and did not find any wrongdoing.

Schwed stated they fully complied with all of FINRA’s supervision rules, including the record-keeping requirements. He clarified that when Landolt questioned Liddle, “he was not truthful,” in his answers.

“Importantly, the Wisconsin securities regulators made no complaints regarding Landolt Securities’ supervision,” Schwed stated.

DFI answered in an email to 7 Investigates it has an open investigation regarding Landolt Securities.

Schwed’s initial formal statement reads:

“Tony Liddle was an independent agent affiliated for a period of time with Landolt Securities, but he engaged in all of his wrongdoing through his separate and independent, family-owned company, Prosper Wealth Management.

Mr. Liddle concealed his improper activities from both Landolt Securities and Wisconsin state regulators, and Mr. Liddle has had no affiliation or connection to Landolt Securities since May 2022.”

Lloyd Schwed, attorney representing Landolt Securities

FINRA stated it does not comment on investigations or arbitration proceedings. Sarkauskas’ Heritage Law Office, is representing 16 people and working to find a way to restore these clients. Halling & Cayo, S.C. also posted it initiated an arbitration action with FINRA against Landolt Securities.

DFI’s director of professional registration and compliance bureau under the Division of Securities, Deborah Fabritz said to the best of their knowledge, the 13 clients listed in the order from September are the only ones who expected to have their money invested on their behalf. She asked if any other people who believe they have been victimized and have not been identified should contact their office.

Liddle was also registered as an insurance agent. The Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance stated his license has been suspended based on the allegations in the DFI order. It has an ongoing investigation and a hearing is pending.

7 Investigates reached out to numerous law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. Some local agencies noted their investigation was sent on to the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigations. That department would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, and the FBI stated the same.