Russell Wasendorf Sr., the founder of Peregrine Financial Group, is such a presence in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that his attempted suicide has cast a shadow even over the town's restaurant scene.
MyVerona, the upscale Italian restaurant that he owns in downtown Cedar Falls, featured a sign on its door on Tuesday stating it was "closed until further notice," according to Radio Iowa, just a day after Wasendorf was found at his company's headquarters in his car with a tube connecting its tailpipe to the interior. Wasendorf's 2009 opening of the Italian restaurant is just one of the many ways the now embattled CEO of the brokerage company also known as PFGBest had an outsized presence in the town.
"The guy kind of had this messianic condition,” Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago and a former Peregrine employee told The Huffington Post. “He had this image of PFGBest and his group and built this compound in the middle of nowhere in Iowa. It had a Montessori school, a day care."
Regulators announced Monday that more than $200 million in customer money seemed to be missing from accounts at PFGBest, which specialized in commodities and forex futures. The National Futures Association issued an emergency order essentially freezing PFGBest’s operations after finding that a bank account, which the company claimed had $225 million, had only $5 million. The regulated unit of the firm filed to liquidate under Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Tuesday.
Although on a smaller scale, the scandal is reminiscent of MF Global's collapse last year and the missing money was exposed in part by changes that regulators made in the wake of MF Global's fall, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On Monday police found a suicide note from Wasendorf Sr. that "caused alarm, at least concern for us to get federal authorities involved," police officials said. On Monday afternoon the company’s headquarters were basically empty except for emergency vehicles parked outside for security reasons, according to KWWL.
The CEO's son, Russell Wasendorf Jr., ran the company’s day-to-day operations and briefed employees on Tuesday after news broke of the scandal and suicide, according to Flynn. The board resolution authorizing the bankruptcy was signed by Wasendorf Jr., the firm's president, on behalf of Wasendorf Sr., according to Reuters.
“He sounded like he was in another world,” a PFG broker said of Wasendorf Jr., according to Reuters. "Pretty much everybody around here said we're doomed.”
Wasendorf Sr., a native of Marion, Iowa, moved the company from Chicago to Cedar Falls in 2009 and built an $18 million environmentally friendly campus in the woods, according to WCFCourier.com. A 1970 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Wasendorf extended his reach beyond the company's new campus: In 2009 he made a $2 million donation to his university's athletic program. Each year he sponsored a charity triathlon in Waterloo, Iowa. In a poignant sign of his influence, this year's triathlon has now been suspended "due to recent emergency events involving Peregrine Charities founder, Russel[l] R. Wasendorf, Sr," according to its website.
Wasendorf Sr.'s attempted suicide and the firm's downfall have rocked the small town of Cedar Falls, business owner Paul Hannam told the Journal. Hannam, who owns an electrical equipment business there, said PFGBest was one of his customers.
"With a business like this in an area like this, it's going to have a huge impact," Hannam told the Journal. "We don't have things happen like this in Cedar Falls."
A call to PFGBest seeking comment was not immediately returned.
“Due to a recent emergency involving Russell R. Wasendorf, Sr., a suicide attempt, some accounting irregularities are being investigated regarding company accounts,” PFGBest said in a statement to investors published online by Futures Magazine, according to the Des Moines Register. “PFGBEST is wholly owned by Mr. Wasendorf. Therefore, the NFA and other officials have put all funds on hold.”
Wasendorf Sr., a 40-year veteran of the futures industry, had a storied career before his company’s fall from grace on Monday. Still, his tenure was not without controversy.
In 2010, authorities began investigating the company over allegations that it had accepted millions of dollars from Trevor Cook, in one of the largest Ponzi schemes in Minnesota history. In 2010, Cook was sentenced to 25 years in prison following allegations that he had stole $190 million from thousands of investors. In 2005, Cook had participated in foreign currency trading through accounts worth $48 million. The representative for the investors that lost out in Cook’s Ponzi scheme sued PFGBest earlier this year.
Reports of PFGBest’s connection to the Ponzi scheme were part of what prompted Flynn, the analyst at Price Futures Group, to ultimately leave the company earlier this year, he said. In 2009 when PFGBest bought his firm Alaron Trading, Flynn almost left, he said, but Wasendorf Jr. assured him that the company was "going to be the most compliant firm in the industry. It's going to be bulletproof," Wasendorf Jr. said. So Flynn decided to stay for a while.
Wasendorf Sr. got his start in 1972 in Cedar Falls as a teacher holding seminars and offering educational programming, according the Journal. In 1990, he started Peregrine Financial Group Inc. and established the Wasendorf Trading System, a method for making recommendations for commodities contracts.
Years later Wasendorf Sr. told the Chicago Sun Times that he named the company after a peregrine, a type of falcon, because "it's the world’s fastest predator," noting, "it’s kind of related in some degree to profiting in the futures market, where you have to act quickly,” according to WSJ.com.
After making a huge profit for himself and his customers by advising them to short the futures market just days before the the 1987 "Black Monday" stock market crash, Wasendorf Sr. expanded his business, according to Reuters. In 2008, the company rebranded itself as PFGBest, some 10 years after creating the BESTDirect Online Trading system.
In addition to being a colossal presence within his company and in his town, Wasendorf Sr. made waves in the futures industry. He was often cited as a representative of the sector in media reports and wrote letters to the editor on a variety of topics, according to WSJ.com.
D.M. Levine contributed to this report.