Investors in two of Jim Rogers' commodity funds who feel sideswiped by the Refco ( RFXCQ) scandal might want to take another look at their famous manager when considering whom to blame. Rogers, who became a media star in the 1990s by dishing out investing advice on television, held talks with the since-collapsed New York brokerage about purchasing a stake in his management company just weeks before Refco was laid low by scandal, sources told TheStreet.com. The talks between Rogers and Refco stemmed from a series of discussions beginning last spring aimed at giving Refco a prominent role in marketing and selling the Rogers funds. The ongoing talks led to a deal in which Rogers' Beeland Management Co. transferred $362 million in assets in the two funds from Man Financial to Refco in late September. "Two months ago, it looked like a brilliant decision," said a person close to the funds. But the decision to move the assets backfired when Refco filed for Chapter 11 protection on Oct. 17, leaving the money locked up in a bankruptcy proceeding. Beeland manages the Rogers Raw Materials Fund and the Rogers International Raw Materials Fund. Walter Thomas Price, Beeland's CEO, confirmed Refco made an overture in August to buy out the interest of Beeland's minority shareholders. "As CEO, and in my fiduciary obligation, I passed along to the minority shareholders Refco's interest in the possible acquisition of their ownership," says Price, who is also chairman and CEO of Price Group, a Chicago-based futures trading and brokerage firm. In fact, by early October, Refco was quickly taking on a bigger role in the daily operation of the Rogers funds. By that time, the brokerage had officially become the selling agent for the Rogers funds, replacing Uhlmann Price Securities, a small Chicago firm affiliated with the Price Group.
People familiar with Rogers' thinking say the move to forge a business relationship with Refco made sense at the time. Refco was an international firm that could expose the funds to a larger number of investors, these people note. But the plan quickly turned sour for Beeland and its clients. Beeland has told investors it may be some time before they can get their money out of its funds. The mangers have sued Refco, seeking the immediate release of the frozen assets, claiming they never should have been included in the bankruptcy filing. Beeland contends the Rogers funds' assets were "wrongfully and fraudulently" placed by Refco employees in the wrong accounts, a move that led to them being included in the bankruptcy proceeding. The movement of the funds' money by Refco was well-timed. It occurred right around the time Refoc's former CEO Phillip Bennett was scrambling to secure a loan from Austria's Bank fur Arbeit und Wirtschaft, or Bawag, to pay a $430 million debt he allegedly was trying to hide. Bennett was ousted from Refco on Oct. 10 after paying down the $430 million debt that was secretly owed to Refco by another company he controlled. A few days later, federal prosecutors charged the Cambridge graduate and multimillionaire trader with securities fraud. Refco filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 17. Rogers declined to comment for this story. People familiar with the Rogers funds say that as early as July, Beeland was in discussions with Refco about becoming its primary broker. Also in July, Beeland announced it had hired Robert Mercorella, Refco's former director of global marketing and business development, as its chief operating officer. Mercorella didn't stay long at Beeland, however. A month later, he was gone from the management company and back at Refco in his old job. Mercorella didn't return a phone call. Sources say the decision to bring Mercorella to Beeland was part of the plan to transfer the Rogers funds' assets to Refco. One person says Mercorella was never supposed to stay at Beeland long.
Mercorella surfaced in the lawsuit filed this week by the Rogers funds against Refco. The lawsuit alleges that Mercorella was one of several Refco executives who assured Beeland that the funds' assets were being put into segregated accounts with Refco's regulated futures division. When the alleged fraud at Refco was disclosed, Beeland learned that the assets in the Rogers funds were being held in accounts at Refco Capital Markets, the firm's unregulated prime brokerage business. Refco has been prohibiting customers from withdrawing any funds from its Refco Capital Markets group. Mercorella and other Refco executives, according to the lawsuit, told Beeland that the Rogers funds' money would be transferred as soon as possible to the futures business. But that apparently never happened, and after the filing it was too late. Beeland contends that if the assets had been properly deposited in accounts with Refco's futures arm, they never would have become embroiled in the bankruptcy proceeding. That's because the futures business, which Refco is trying to sell, wasn't included in the bankruptcy filing. The lawsuit lays out a paper trail in which Beeland officials kept asking for verification that the funds were deposited in the right accounts. Refco officials allegedly made repeated assurances to that effect. But in the end, it wasn't the case.