Business

Co-owner of LAFC soccer team is accused of securities fraud by the SEC

Banc of California Stadium
Soccer fans last year get a first look at Banc of California Stadium, the home of LAFC.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Jason Sugarman, a minority owner of the popular Los Angeles Football Club and son-in-law of Hollywood mogul Peter Guber, has been accused of participating in an elaborate scheme that defrauded investors in tribal bonds of some $43 million.

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Sugarman on June 26 with multiple violations of securities laws in a civil complaint that seeks to fine him and recoup some $9 million in ill-gotten gains that the agency says he personally received. It also wants to bar Sugarman from ever serving as a director or officer of a public company.

Sugarman could not be reached for comment, and an LAFC spokesman said he could not yet speak on the matter.

“We are obviously aware of the situation with Jason Sugarman, and we will have further comment as we get more information,” said Seth Burton, the team’s senior vice president of communications.

The accusations against Sugarman come at a time when the Major League Soccer expansion team has been flying high. It has sold out every game at its new Banc of California stadium in Exposition Park since it began play last spring. This year, the team has the league’s best record and arguably its top star in Carlos Vela, the MLS scoring leader.

Allegations of impropriety against owners can prove a public relations nightmare for teams and leagues even when the substance of the accusations is less serious. The MLS did not return calls for comment.

Mark Stevens, a billionaire venture capitalist and minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, was fined $500,000 and banned from NBA activities for a year after he was captured on television last month shoving a Toronto Raptors player on the sidelines during an NBA Finals game.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is facing misdemeanor charges that he paid for sex at a Florida massage parlor. If he is convicted, he could be fined and suspended by the NFL, where he has been a leading figure.

Sugarman, by contrast, is a low-profile figure in a glitzy ownership group that paid a league-record $110-million expansion fee in 2014 to replace the disbanded Chivas USA as the second MLS team in Southern California alongside the Galaxy.

Other members of the group include former Laker Magic Johnson, former Women’s World Cup champion Mia Hamm Garciaparra and self-help author Tony Robbins. The group is led by Larry Berg, a partner at private equity titan Apollo Global Management.

Guber, who produced several hit movies and is now chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, is the team’s executive chairman. He did not respond to an email and a call placed to his company.

Sugarman, who is married to Guber’s daughter Elizabeth, describes himself on his LinkedIn profile as a leader in the finance industry in the areas of asset-based lending, private equity and debt investments.

The SEC, in its complaint, accuses Sugarman of conniving with his business partner, Jason Galanis, and several other participants to dupe Wakpamni Lake Community Corp., a Native American tribal corporation, into issuing $60 million worth of bonds.

The proceeds of the bonds were supposed to be used to buy annuities with enough left over to pay back the bond investors. However, the SEC alleges that the participants were able to gain control of the bond proceeds by acquiring two investment advisors who used their authority to invest client pension funds in the offerings.

The SEC said the scheme left the investment advisors defunct, a European insurer in administrative receivership and the Native American tribal corporation “nominally indebted for $60 million.” The pension funds were left with $43 million invested in “worthless securities,” the SEC complaint said.

“Sugarman, however, benefited immensely from the scheme; indeed, to a large extent, he was the biggest winner from the fraud, ending up with voting control over corporate assets that were acquired with bond proceeds, and from which he ultimately siphoned almost $9 million in cash for his direct and personal benefit,” the complaint says.

The SEC previously charged Galanis and seven other defendants for their roles in the scheme, which it said took place over three years starting in 2013. Galanis is currently serving a 14-year sentence after being convicted in 2017 of defrauding the tribal entity and pension fund investors, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. His father, John Galanis, another participant, was sentenced to 10 years in March.

Jason Sugarman is the brother of Steve Sugarman, the former chief executive and chairman of Banc of California, an Irvine bank that paid $100 million for the naming rights to LAFC’s stadium in Exposition Park.

Steve Sugarman resigned from the bank in January 2017 at least in part due to the bank’s connections to Galanis, who had business ties to bank insiders. The scandal also prompted a board shakeup at the bank.

Steve Sugarman, who built the lender into one of the fastest growing in the country, denied all wrongdoing and accused board members of ousting him to take over the bank.