ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Roy Speer, the co-founder of Home Shopping Network, was a Florida billionaire once listed on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.
His investments were handled by Ami Forte of Morgan Stanley, and she made tens of millions buying and selling on his behalf. Because of her expertise in handling Speer's assets and other top-flight accounts worth $2 billion, she became a managing director and one of the few female members of Morgan Stanley's Chairman's Club, which was reserved for its top wealth-management advisers. She, too, was well known around her home near Tampa, serving on several boards and was once named 'Businesswoman of the Year' by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
But there was something else between Forte and Speer: a years-long love affair — and after Speer died in 2012, things got messy, with his widow alleging that Forte and Morgan Stanley took advantage of him in his later years to earn millions in commissions. Forte was fired, and she is now fighting back by filing an arbitration case against Morgan Stanley challenging that decision.
"I cared deeply for this person," Forte said, during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "The type of relationship we had changed over the years. We were very, very dear friends. It changed to a very dear friendship, there was a time when it was more than that."
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press Tuesday afternoon, the company's spokeswoman, Christine Jockle, said that Forte's claims "overlook the fact that she was already adjudicated as jointly liable for the award based on her conduct.
"Despite this, Ms. Forte has failed to contribute anything to the amount awarded, and has also failed to repay substantial sums loaned to her in connection with her employment. We categorically reject her claims against Morgan Stanley and look forward to addressing all these issues at a hearing on the merits."
After Speer's death, his widow gained control of her husband's brokerage account and alleged that Morgan Stanley, through Forte, put through approximately 12,000 unauthorized trades in Mr. Speer's accounts, generating commissions of nearly $40 million. Lynnda Speer filed suit with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, saying Forte and Morgan Stanley "took advantage" of the elderly man, who died when he was 80.
A three-person arbitration panel ruled in March that Morgan Stanley, Forte and a Morgan Stanley branch manager 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 fees likely to be several million dollars more.
Forte and another broker who worked with her were fired days later. She'd worked at Morgan Stanley for 16 years and, she said, her dismissal prevented her from receiving millions in deferred compensation and other benefits.
Now Forte, who lives in Pinellas County, Florida, has struck back. She has filed a multi-million dollar securities arbitration case before FINRA against Morgan Stanley and its subsidiaries, saying the company unjustly fired and penalized her. She says the basis for the arbitrator's decision was Morgan Stanley's conduct after she was no longer managing the Speer investment accounts.
"It's just not right," Forte said. "I have been a loyal employee, I loved that company. I've done everything for them. When times were tough, I rallied the troops."
Forte, who was divorced when she met Speer, insists that her relationship with him wasn't manipulative. According to documents filed by Forte's attorney, Speer had been estranged from his wife for years. Forte and Speer began a relationship about eight months after meeting in 1999, she said.
"There were many, many people in Morgan Stanley who very much knew about that relationship for years and years and years," Forte said.
Forte questions whether she would have been fired had she been a male broker.
Speer visited the Morgan Stanley office several times a week, said Forte and her lawyer, Robert Pearl.
"Mr. Speer had no problem disagreeing with those around him, including the people at Morgan Stanley who serviced his accounts, when he felt it appropriate," wrote a Morgan Stanley attorney in an arbitration document. "He was not a person who was manipulated into doing anything he did not want to do."
Pearl adds that there was no industry rule — or Morgan Stanley policy — that prohibited a relationship between a broker and a customer.
"He was my mentor, I looked up to him. He was an absolutely brilliant man. We were dear friends until the end," said Forte, who added that she "put distance" between herself and Speer in 2007, and assigned his accounts to others in her office.
Speer, who in 1982 co-founded the Home Shopping Club, which became the Home Shopping Network in 1985, was a "remarkably sophisticated and controlling businessman" who had an active and risky investment strategy seeking above-market returns. He was provided with detailed written summaries of his investments and maintained them in a notebook that he monitored daily, said court records, which also showed that Speer made a net gain of $24 million on his Morgan Stanley investments.
"Consequently, this dispute is not an attempt to recover losses, but rather is Claimants' attempts to recover commissions and other expenses that Mr. Speer paid in connection with the highly profitable investments he pursued," the records say.
Regulators held dozens of hearings when Mrs. Speer brought the suit, which originally sought $400 million. She'd 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, according to court documents. That prevented the panel awarding any larger amount.
Records show Mrs. Speer didn't voice any concerns while her husband was alive.
"My client was married to Mr. Speer for 52 years," said Guy Burns, the attorney for Lynnda Speer. "During that time he kept his business affairs separate from hers and from her. She was not allowed to have any information about any of his business affairs. His office staff had been under strict instruction not to share information with his wife."
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