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D.C. children’s charity accuses brokers of swindling $8 million

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When negotiating with the Hillcrest Children's Center to handle millions of dollars from the District-based nonprofit group's endowment, executives at Gibraltar Asset Management Group held themselves out to be responsible investment managers whose advisers included top faculty at Howard University, according to court records.

But two years after investing nearly $8 million with Gibraltar, officials at the Hillcrest Childrens Center in Washington say their money is all gone except for a few hundred dollars. In a federal lawsuit, Hillcrest, which began almost 200 years ago and was first led by Dolley Madison, is accusing Gibraltar and its executives of outright theft.

Hillcrest doesn't name or identify any of the business advisers as defendants in its lawsuit, nor does the nonprofit suggest they played any role in handling the investment proceeds. But Hillcrest attorneys do point out in court documents that Gibraltar's advisory board was an important factor in gaining Hillcrest's trust before the nonprofit group invested so much money.

Hillcrest, which provides mental health services, is still operating, but the loss of the $8 million "threatens its ability to fulfill its mission to assist disadvantaged families in the District of Columbia," the lawsuit said.

Aside from two members of the faculty at Howard University School of Business, the executives cited by Gibraltar included an investment banker, a lawyer, a Washington artist and a Maryland dentist.

But one of those listed as an ad in Gibraltar materials said in an interview that he didn't know he was an adviser to the company. Another purported adviser said he didn't have anything to do with the company, though he said he did give advice to the Gibraltar when it was just starting. Others listed as advisers did not respond to messages.

"At one point, I was approached, but I didn't realize anything came of it," said Aditya B. Mukerji, who was listed as an adviser in Gibraltar marketing materials. "I would have gladly served, though."

Dean Sirjue, assistant dean for administration at Howard University's business school and a former member of the Prince George's Board of Education, also was listed as an adviser.

Mr. Sirjue said he was asked to be an adviser to what he called a minority startup business but that he terminated his role with the company in 2009. He said he had no involvement in Gibraltar's operations and was not aware of the company's deal with the Hillcrest Children's Center.

Gibraltar's 12-page executive summary devotes 1 1/2 pages to describe the background of Barron Harvey, who also was listed as an adviser. He is the dean of the business school at Howard University and, according to the Gibraltar report, he has won two "educator of the year" awards, held faculty posts at Georgetown University and other universities and helped spearhead the accreditation of Howard University's accounting program.

Among others listed as advisers in Gibraltar materials were Dr. James King, a Maryland dentist, and George H. Smith-Shomari, an artist and consultant who is listed as a professor at the University of the District of Columbia. Neither returned calls left at their offices.

The Hillcrest lawsuit also charges that Gibraltar officials held themselves to be especially attuned to the investment needs of nonprofit groups and churches, a fact that Hillcrest board members deemed "especially significant."

"Upon learning that Hillcrest was seeking new investment advisers to manage its endowment, the Gibraltar defendants represented themselves as prominent and legitimate investment advisers active within the African-American community in Washington, D.C,," Hillcrest's attorneys argue in their lawsuit.

Repeated efforts to reach Gibraltar's chief executive officer, Garfield Taylor, who is also facing civil lawsuits in Maryland and the District, were unsuccessful. E-mails sent to Gibraltar were not returned, and an office phone was disconnected. It's unclear if Gibraltar is even operational.

The address for the company is on the 3400 block of Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, but the only sign on the office door is for a company called Garfield Taylor Inc. Nobody answered the door when a reporter knocked recently, and a phone number listed for Garfield Taylor Inc. also was disconnected.

Attorneys for Hillcrest argue in the lawsuit that Gibraltar had "lost or misappropriated almost every dollar of the $8 million investment Hillcrest had entrusted to their care."

"Instead of following the strategy that they had presented to the [Hillcrest] board and promised to follow, the Gibraltar defendants squandered millions of dollars through investments that were flatly inconsistent with both the agreed-upon investment arrangement and the Gibraltar defendants' fiduciary duties owed to Hillcrest," the lawsuit charged.

Before the deal, the lawsuit said, Mr. Taylor led presentations in which Gibraltar talked about its "covered call" investment strategy of purchasing stock while simultaneously selling a "call option" on that stock.

Still, two Hillcrest board members had concerns, wondering how Gibraltar managed to produce such great returns in a weak financial market. They asked why other investment advisers weren't following the same "covered call" strategy, the lawsuit said.

In response, Mr. Taylor said the strategy was complicated and other advisers "did not and could not" follow it because of the amount of work and sophistication required to execute it successfully," the lawsuit said.

Among others, the lawsuit also names as a defendant Stuart H. Gary, described as Gibraltar's attorney during the investment deal. His office did not return messages.

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