Lots of affection, emptied savings

Broker: Monica Coleman once posed as a friend as well as an investment adviser, Mary Barringer says. But when her investment firm went bankrupt, Coleman was unreachable, Barringer says.

June 20, 1999|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

When Mary Barringer saw the old place in December, she felt proud.

The brass was polished, the marble refinished. Murals spanned the walls. Red carpet covered the floor. Barringer had gone to work at 7 E. Redwood St. 36 years earlier, as a clerical worker for First National Bank of Maryland.

Barringer, 67, marveled at how the building's lobby had been spiffed up by Monica Coleman, her stockbroker. Coleman had drafted a financial plan for Barringer in 1994, when Barringer was struggling with breast cancer, her husband's death and medical bills.

Now Coleman was launching her own firm, Coleman Craten LLC, in the grand old building.

"I felt good about Monica succeeding in such a beautiful building where I had worked," Barringer said. "It just took me back 30 years. The same brass, the same marble, the elevator to the upstairs that I used to use. I was just amazed."

But Monica Coleman wasn't succeeding. The state securities division last month shut down Coleman Craten, in part because the firm sold unregistered investments and guaranteed above-market rates to investors like Barringer.

Coleman and her firm both filed for bankruptcy protection and are being liquidated. Four investors have filed suit seeking the return of $3 million. Another who hasn't sued is owed $1.4 million, according to court records.

And Mary Barringer's $103,000 investment -- the investment that had produced a monthly $1,000 allowance, the investment that Coleman promised would return 30 percent in one year, the investment that constituted Barringer's life savings -- is gone, Barringer said.

"Monica promised me a future," Barringer said. And she had sprinkled that promise with comparisons to her own mother and plenty of hugs and kisses, Barringer said. "Now I have nothing," Barringer said through tears. "And it hurts."

Attempts to reach Coleman were unsuccessful. A phone number included in her personal bankruptcy filing was not answered. Asked for a response to Barringer's story, her bankruptcy lawyer, Cornelius Carmody, said: "You go ahead and publish it at your peril. We're not really interested in talking to you."

Coleman invoked her Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination this month in a deposition with lawyers for the trustee assigned to the bankruptcy cases of Coleman and Coleman Craten. Lori Simpson, the trustee, said in court records filed this month that she had "uncovered evidence of plans to conceal assets" from creditors in Coleman's personal bankruptcy case.

What makes Barringer's story different from others where retirees lose their life savings to investment schemes is Monica Coleman didn't run a boiler-room operation.

Respected brokerage

The broker had worked at Legg Mason Wood Walker, one of Baltimore's oldest and most respected brokerage houses. There, she turned Mary Barringer's investment of $82,000 into more than $100,000 in four years with legitimate investments documented by monthly statements, Barringer said.

So when Coleman proposed a lucrative one-year "private" investment about one year ago, it didn't seem outlandish at all, Barringer said. "The way she presented it to me, I had no reason to believe it was wrong."

Barringer isn't alone among investors who say Coleman cultivated a personal relationship with them while she was at Legg.

Shahid and Jean Aziz, who are suing Coleman to get their $765,000 investment, said Coleman called Jean Aziz "her dearest friend in the world" and told the couple that they were named as beneficiaries in her life insurance policy. Eileen L. Smith and Agnes M. Henning, who are seeking $150,000 in a lawsuit, said Coleman referred to them as "second mothers."

Those investors have declined requests for interviews. Mary Barringer said she is talking about her experience because she is simply devastated. "How else would I feel?" she said. "It was confidence and trust I had in Monica."

Mary Barringer was having a tough time when she met Monica Coleman in 1994. In 1991, when she endured breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy, she also put her husband, an Alzheimer's patient, into a nursing home. Barringer's husband died in 1993.

Lump-sum pension

Barringer, who was earning just over $22,000 after 30 years at First National, quit in 1994 because of health reasons. She took her pension in an $82,000 lump sum.

Aside from medical bills, Mary Barringer's neat but modest three-bedroom house off Annapolis Road just south of Baltimore needed roof repairs and a new furnace. She was also raising a granddaughter, who was about 12 at the time. The problem was to make the most of the little money she did have.

Barringer's daughter, Cathy Barringer, 45, had opened an account with Monica Coleman at Legg Mason after meeting her at an after-work investing seminar in the late 1980s.

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