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Businessman Josh Verne was allegedly able to defraud some of the region’s most powerful business leaders by playing up his image as a family man ingrained in Philadelphia’s Main Line Jewish community, several of his investors told the Philadelphia Business Journal.
One investor, who requested anonymity and claims he lost more than $100,000 in the alleged scheme, said Verne duped largely Jewish investors by playing into his “mensch” personality, inviting longtime friends and business associates to his home for Shabbat dinners and presenting himself as someone to be trusted. The investor is one of several who said Verne told people what they wanted to hear until 2021 when checks started bouncing and Verne received calls from angry investors demanding to know what happened to their money.
“He was really a mini-Madoff because he screwed all of us out of money, including family, friends and lots of prominent people who trusted him and knew him for years,” the investor said. “No one saw it coming. … He played off of our emotions. It was not like investing with a stranger. This was years of knowing him before I gave him a penny. That’s why it really disturbs us. And what worries me is the Jewish thing. People trusted him and it just gives our people a bad name.”
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit on June 15 against Verne, 46, formerly of Gladwyne and now a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in connection with an approximately $31 million “offering fraud” that allegedly targeted more than 100 investors — many from this region. In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the SEC alleges the Lower Moreland High School graduate defrauded investors, including close friends and family members, by making false claims about his prior business successes and personal wealth, his authority to pool investor funds in order to purchase securities, and the purported use of investors’ funds.
Between at least 2018 and 2020, the complaint claims Verne solicited investments for his King of Prussia online rent-to-own business, Ownable, its affiliate Ownable Capital Partners I, three limited liability companies he created, and two startups unaffiliated with Verne.
Of the roughly $31 million raised, the SEC said only a little more than half was invested as promised. The complaint alleges Verne used more than $16 million to finance Ownable and Ownable Capital Partners I, both of which failed, resulting in millions of dollars in investor losses. Verne misappropriated at least $9.3 million for his own benefit, the complaint alleges, using the funds to buy a Jersey Shore beach house, pay for private travel, pay his children’s private school tuition, charter private jets, repay millions of dollars in personal loans, and make payments to earlier investors to maintain his alleged scheme.
The complaint said he returned approximately $5.2 million to investors through payments designed to keep the alleged Ponzi scheme going. On at least three occasions, the complaint said Verne sold investors’ securities without their knowledge or consent and used the sale proceeds for his personal benefit.
Sources identified 10 high-profile Philadelphia businesspeople as being among the investors who contributed funds to Ownable. The Business Journal confirmed Campus Apartments CEO and 76ers minority owner David Adelman, real estate developer Bart Blatstein and politician-turned-filmmaker Sam Katz as investors.
Blatstein and most of the other investors contacted by the Business Journal for this story declined to comment.
Katz, a local businessman who ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 1999 and 2003, said he met Verne at a Jewish community event in 2018 at a private residence, where he first told Katz about his new business. Ownable was described to investors as a Rent-a-Center for technology consumer products.
The SEC lawsuit claims Verne told Ownable investors that he had sold his family’s furniture business, Home Line Furniture Industries, for $80 million. The SEC, however, notes the company “fell into significant debt,” liquidated its retail inventory and ceased operations in 2011. The SEC said Verne told investors that he sold his next business, Workpays.me, for between $30 million and $100 million when it was actually acquired for $4 million. The federal agency also alleges that Verne told investors he sold FlockU, an online content platform for college students, in 2017 to Becker Associates for $60 million when in reality he sold FlockU’s domain name and website content for $1 and converted the company into Ownable. He then told investors that he used funds from those sales to start Ownable, according to the SEC.
Several investors told the Business Journal they looked at who was on the Ownable board, namely Adelman and four other seasoned technology entrepreneurs or venture capitalists, and that helped push along the due diligence they conducted. Investors said they received quarterly reports that reflected a growing business and were told Ownable was in the process of securing an investment of more than $100 million from New York firm Blue Elephant Capital Management. Blue Elephant told the Business Journal it never made the investment.
Adelman, currently leading the Sixers’ efforts to build a $1.3 billion arena in Center City, said in a statement that as one of the many investors who were “victims of Mr. Verne’s lies and elaborate fraud, I am grateful for the work of federal authorities in seeking to hold him accountable. I’m disappointed that Mr. Verne not only lied to me but also apparently used my reputation to attract other investors whom he also defrauded.”
Some investors said that as soon as they contributed more money into Ownable, Verne offered another opportunity in Austin, Texas-based packaged-alcohol distributor BeatBox Beverages, whose owners received an investment from billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban during a 2014 appearance on the ABC show “Shark Tank.” Verne created a limited liability company called BBB Investments through which sources said several Ownable investors also invested in BeatBox.
The SEC said that in September 2020, Ownable’s board asked Verne to resign after learning that he caused the company to accrue large amounts of debt and issued bad checks to investors. Verne resigned in October 2020. Katz said he then began getting emails from Ownable’s acting CEO, Ryan Paul, who was looking to put together an investment round to help save the company. Katz said the continued flow of emails became more and more depressing until the final one in 2021 that said: “This is the last email you will get from us. Talk to your tax advisors.”
Katz realized his Ownable investment was worthless so he pivoted to salvage his investment in BeatBox, which was performing above expectations, but he said company financial records showed he was credited with fewer shares than he had paid Verne to secure. The SEC said Verne used some of those investor funds to repay a loan.
With the backing of the group of BeatBox investors, Katz said he personally called Verne in December 2020 and told him to resign immediately as managing member of the LLC. After some initial pushback, he said Verne formally signed a letter of resignation the same day.
Katz said after expressing anger at Verne, each investor in BBB Investments LLC agreed to a deal to take a 35% haircut on their original investment in BeatBox. BeatBox has grown revenue tenfold since the original investment was made by the BBB group, Katz said, something that could take away some of the sting for those allegedly duped in the Ownable investment. Even so, Katz blames himself for not doing enough due diligence with Ownable and Verne.
Investors said they were soon interviewed by the FBI and SEC. When a Ponzi scheme is alleged, there is often a parallel criminal case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. None has been filed to this point and an email to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia was not immediately returned. Katz said he would be disappointed if a criminal action was not brought against Verne.
Jon-Jorge Aras of New York’s Warren Law Group and Marc Durant of Philadelphia’s Durant & Durant, who are representing Verne in this case, did not respond to an inquiry from the Business Journal seeking comment.
While Katz said he only knew Verne for a few months before deciding to invest in Ownable, other investors knew Verne and his family for years through his work with Jewish causes or as longtime family friends. Katz said Verne used bonds formed through their common religion to perpetrate the alleged fraud.
“If you’re willing to rip off your [family] to make yourself into something you’re not and then you steal from everybody … aside from being criminal, it’s also sociopathic,” said Katz, who is not related to Verne. “Whatever else it might be, he created an umbrella under which to wrap himself in morality and religion and a code of ethics which is not even close to who he was.”
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