A former Northwestern Mutual rep agreed to a one-year suspension to settle FINRA charges that he didn’t tell his firm about a crypto asset he co-founded, touted and paid celebrities like Kim Kardashian and NBA star Paul Pierce to promote (who were themselves fined six figures by the SEC for not disclosing those payments).
As a part of the FINRA settlement, Justin Maher also agreed to a $10,000 fine, without admitting or denying the findings.
Maher first entered the industry at Northwestern in March 2008, and was registered with the firm from 2010 through October 2021. He was allowed to resign while being investigated for allegations that he was “involved in a cryptocurrency shilling scam,’ according to his BrokerCheck profile.
FINRA’s charges against Maher allege he conducted outside business without notifying Northwestern, in violation of registrants’ rules (and Northwestern’s own requirements). According to the order, starting in January through October 2021, Maher worked with a social media marketing organization recommending crypto asset investments, moderating online content and pushing particular crypto assets.
That spring, he helped found the new token EthereumMax (EMAX) by providing some capital to create the asset and hiring a marketing staff (notably, Maher also helped manage the asset’s social media and “arranged for payments to celebrity promoters,” according to FINRA).
Later that year, Maher was a consultant for the “Level UP coin,” another crypto asset, and he became a managing member of a crypto asset consulting firm that created and monetized blockchain tech, according to FINRA. Northwestern prohibited reps from making private securities transactions and “specifically prohibited them from recommending crypto assets or referring customers to crypto asset investments,” the order read.
But throughout 2021, Maher allegedly participated in more than 30 private securities transactions with three crypto assets, including EMAX and Level UP. Maher put his own funds into the assets and also “recommended and facilitated investments by others,” and did so without ever informing Northwestern, according to FINRA.
But allegations against Maher extend beyond the details in FINRA’s settlement, according to November 2022 reporting from Forbes.
Maher reportedly co-founded EMAX with the help of Russ Davis, his brother-in-law and crypto promoter with the social media handle @InRussWeTrust. According to Forbes, Davis and Maher ran a tried-and-true “pump and dump” scheme with a crypto sheen, touting EMAX to Davis’ thousands of social media followers while allegedly cashing out their own holdings, raising millions in the process.
In response, Maher was named as one of five defendants with the other EMAX co-founders in a class action suit in California federal court (Davis was named as a “promoter defendant,” along with Kim Kardashian, Paul Pierce, Antonio Brown and Floyd Mayweather Jr.).
Forbes’ reporting found the class action suit alleged Maher received 5.9% of all EMAX tokens as its co-founder, and he left the founding team two weeks after its launch, with his stake worth $4.1 million and then sold off 98% of his holdings (Maher denied he’d ever been paid as co-founder of the token, according to Forbes).
When he resigned from Northwestern, Maher admitted to investing in the crypto offerings and being involved in undisclosed crypto-related business activities, but “denied colluding to manipulate coin prices,” according to his BrokerCheck profile.
Representatives for Northwestern did not respond to requests for comment. Maher could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
But Maher and the EMAX co-founders weren’t the only ones facing scrutiny; last October, Kim Kardashian agreed to pay $1.26 million to settle SEC charges she’d touted EMAX without disclosing to social media followers that she’d been paid $250,000 to do so.
In February, former NBA star Paul Pierce was fined $1.4 million to settle SEC charges he’d been paid $244,000 to promote EMAX without disclosing it. Both Kardashian and Pierce agreed not to promote any crypto tokens for three years to settle the charges.