Missing banker's investors file complaint against Atlanta firm

A group of former clients of missing bank director Aubrey Lee Price on Monday filed the first legal claim related to the case, seeking damages from an Atlanta firm where Price once worked.

Meanwhile, a senior FBI agent in New York told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that evidence casts doubt on Price's purported suicide note and that authorities have enlisted counterparts in South America and with Interpol to try to find Price.

Lawyers for about a dozen investors said FSC Securities Corp., a trading firm, is liable for losses after failing to stop "fraudulent sales" of investments in a Price firm known as PFG.

Price, 46, is accused of embezzling as much as $21 million from the failed Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, 170 miles southeast of Atlanta. A civil complaint by the Securities and Exchange Commission also accuses Price of defrauding more than 100 clients in his other investment firms including PFG.

The Valdosta man faces federal charges in New York and Georgia related to the bank, where he became a director after leading an investor group that propped it up in 2010.

Price worked at FSC from July 2006 to January 2008 before founding PFG. Justin Zegalia, a long-time associate who also worked at FSC, allegedly recruited clients to invest with PFG before he left to work at Price's firm.

Zegalia is not a defendant in the complaint. Zegalia did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

In a recent interview with Channel 2 Action News, Zegalia said that Price kept him and clients in the dark about investments.

The investors on Monday filed a "statement of claim," essentially an arbitration request, against FSC with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority seeking damages that could total about $10 million.

The claim is not public, as Finra is a non-government regulator, but the details of the complaint were described to the AJC by lawyers for Price's clients.

John Chapman, an Ohio attorney for the investors, said he believes Price started his scheme before he left FSC in January 2008, and that FSC failed to protect clients.

"Mr. Price left FSC four years ago," a company statement said. "We have no reason to believe that the activities in question took place during his short time with our firm."

The SEC has said clients invested about $40 million with Price. In the purported suicide note, sent to associates when he disappeared last month, Price wrote that client losses could be has high as $23 million.

Chapman said many of the investors are retirees who do not have decades to earn back losses from the alleged scheme.

"When a broker-dealer fails to do their job the consequences can be catastrophic," Chapman said.

Price was last seen in Key West, Fla., and had told some people he intended to jump off a ferry, authorities say. In the letter he admits to hiding investment losses but says he had tried in vain to recoup them.

"I realize that time is up and that there is no way I can work my way out of the mess that I have created," the letter said.

Doug Leff, assistant special agent in charge with the FBI in New York, said an analysis of the letter, coupled with other evidence, "give us a pretty high indication and a likelihood that the suicide note was a ruse and he is out there somewhere."

A search continues for Price's body and suicide hasn't been ruled out, but Leff said the events surrounding Price's disappearance seem "too choreographed."

Leff said Price is believed to have owned as many as five boats, several of them capable of a voyage to another country.

The FBI said Price traveled frequently to Guatemala and Venezuela, where Price allegedly owns real estate.

Leff said the FBI isn't sure if Price had accomplices, but others could have unwittingly helped him move money.

Authorities hope people with information about Aubrey Lee Price's whereabouts will call the FBI's New York office at 212-384-1000.