Business

Rick Siskey had swift rise in Charlotte – and sudden fall

Rick Siskey, second from left, was widely viewed as a Charlotte entrepreneurial success story, with a successful financial firm, a namesake YMCA branch and a showpiece home. Here he joins fellow recipients of a Father of the Year award during a 2007 fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association at the Westin hotel. From left: Hank Flint, Siskey, Milton Jones, Chris Kearney, Phil Walton and John Tate.
Rick Siskey, second from left, was widely viewed as a Charlotte entrepreneurial success story, with a successful financial firm, a namesake YMCA branch and a showpiece home. Here he joins fellow recipients of a Father of the Year award during a 2007 fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association at the Westin hotel. From left: Hank Flint, Siskey, Milton Jones, Chris Kearney, Phil Walton and John Tate. Daniel Coston

In the late 1990s, Rick Siskey gave a business partner a wedding gift that was hard to top: A new Mercedes sedan delivered at the reception at Myers Park Country Club.

The present was perhaps the ultimate sign that Siskey, who had grown up of modest means in Illinois, had made it as a major business player in Charlotte, a little more than a decade after arriving in the city with his wife, Diane.

“About 80 percent thought it was great; 20 percent thought it was gaudy and ostentatious,” a wedding attendee told the Observer at the time. “But they don’t understand Rick.”

During his more than three decades in Charlotte, Siskey would leave his mark. A successful financial firm. A namesake YMCA branch. A showpiece home. Investments in start-up technology firms. Father of the Year honors. An over-the-top wedding for his daughter capped by helicopter departure by the bride and groom.

Although he suffered setbacks over the years, including a run-in with securities regulators, his career was largely viewed as an entrepreneurial success story. But that narrative took a sudden and tragic turn last month.

On Dec. 21, a federal judge signed an order saying the Siskeys’ SouthPark home could be seized by the government because of an alleged fraud connection. A week later, Rick Siskey, 58, committed suicide.

On Friday, an affidavit unsealed at the Observer’s request alleged that Siskey had been running a Ponzi scheme through one of his companies for years. Since 2011, the document alleged, Siskey had been taking millions from unsuspecting investors and spending it on casinos, luxury cars and other personal expenses.

In a statement from her attorney, Diane Siskey said she has been devastated by her husband’s death, but is cooperating with authorities and working to repay investors. The affidavit says more than 100 investors may be out as much as $19 million, making it one of the area’s bigger investment frauds.

“It opens up a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said an investor in a Siskey-related real estate venture who did not want his name used to protect personal financial information.

‘It’s just surreal’

Richard Christopher Siskey, the oldest of five siblings, grew up in the Kankakee, Ill., area, near Chicago. He spent much of his leisure time at a YMCA, playing basketball and swimming. He also developed a passion for chess, eventually achieving master-level status.

After starting out as an entry-level insurance salesman in Illinois, he moved to Charlotte in 1985 with Diane, whom he had married two years earlier. He joined financial planning firm Consolidated Planning without any clients, but soon developed a thriving practice that included dozens of local entrepreneurs and professionals.

From the beginning, Siskey was driven to succeed and willing to show off the fruits of his success, a former co-worker said. He often showed up in nice suits, complete with cuff links, and settled into a home in the Providence Country Club neighborhood. If wealthy individuals and businesses were going to invest with him, he needed to look and act the part, the colleague said.

“He always liked the little guy,” said Michael LaVecchia, who has run a variety of seafood ventures in Charlotte. “I always felt a little too small for his big firm in SouthPark, but he would personally make sales calls to me. He liked the small entrepreneur.”

LaVecchia remained loyal to another insurance company, but Siskey “never stopped trying,” he said.

You walk into a room and there’s Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and John Elway talking. It’s just surreal.

Rick Siskey in 2001, on attending the Michael Jordan Invitation Golf Tournament in the Bahamas.

In 1995, Siskey became an even better-known figure in Charlotte when the YMCA named its fledgling Matthews branch for the Siskey family after the couple made a significant donation. Siskey was just 36.

Four years later, the couple bought a more than 6,000-square-foot Georgian mansion on Sharon Road for $2.8 million and renovated it. When the Gwyneth Paltrow/Jack Black “Shallow Hal” movie was filming around Charlotte, the crew used the home for some scenes before the couple moved in.

In another highlight, Siskey told the Observer in 2001 about how he snagged an invite to the inaugural Michael Jordan Invitation Golf Tournament, played at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. At the event, he hobnobbed with some of the sports world’s biggest stars.

“You walk into a room and there’s Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and John Elway talking,” Siskey said. “It’s just surreal.”

‘He was a showman’

Around the same time, Siskey left Consolidated Planning to start his own firm. Wall Street Capitol, an affiliate of MetLife Securities, sold insurance and other financial products to businesses and individuals.

The firm landed in a prominent office building on Sharon Road across from SouthPark Mall. The fourth floor became home to Siskey’s offices as well as for some of the companies in which he invested.

At a time when high-flying dot-com companies were captivating investors, Siskey made early investments in start-ups that included computer programming company Premier Alliance Group, now called Root9B Holdings, and Internet services company ClickCom, which was sold in 2012.

“He helped with our start-up funds,” said John DiCristo, a founder of ClickCom. “We got the company up and going. He was supportive the whole time, helping any way that he could. Then we sold the company and paid Rick back.”

He always liked the little guy. I always felt a little too small for his big firm in SouthPark, but he would personally make sales calls to me. He liked the small entrepreneur.

Seafood entrepreneur Michael LaVecchia, on Rick Siskey

Another entrepreneur who worked with Siskey but did not want his name used to protect business relationships said Siskey was a “good visionary” who saw the potential of the Internet early on. Some of the companies that he invested in took space in his building so he could keep an eye on them and put them on display, the entrepreneur said.

“He was a showman,” he said. “When he brought new investors into the building he would walk them around to each of his businesses.”

Run-ins with regulators

Siskey’s swift rise suffered a setback in 2004 when he accepted a two-year ban from being associated with a securities firm and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine over private securities transactions.

At issue were transactions Siskey had participated in from 1998 to 2001. The offerings had been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but Siskey had not given proper notice to his employers, a violation of industry rules, according to the consent agreement with the regulator now known as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Siskey neither admitted nor denied the findings.

These same transactions later became the subject of a settlement with the U.S. Labor Department in 2011. The department alleged that Siskey and Wall Street Capitol breached their fiduciary responsibilities because profit-sharing plans for two companies had improperly participated in the transactions.

Under a settlement, Siskey and Wall Street Capitol agreed to restore nearly $243,000 to the profit-sharing plans, according to a department news release.

After 2004, Siskey no longer had an affiliation with Wall Street Capitol, MetLife or any other brokerage, according to FINRA records. His wife, Diane, was a registered broker with MetLife starting in 2001 and transferred to Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company when it acquired MetLife’s retail adviser group this past July. She resigned in early December, a MassMutual spokesman said. Her record shows no disciplinary actions.

Over the years Rick Siskey also has been involved in real estate investments in the Charlotte area, including a Ballantyne condominium project that was caught up in the downturn and so far hasn’t come to fruition.

An investor who did not want his name used said Siskey approached him in 2006 to invest $75,000 in the property using money from his MetLife retirement account. But so far he and other investors have not earned any return.

New ventures, galas

In the past decade, Siskey continued to launch new investment vehicles.

In 2010, he founded Siskey Industries, which worked with business owners and entrepreneurs, according to its website. That same year, he also started an investment fund called TSI Holdings, according to North Carolina Secretary of State filings. It sought to raise as much as $100 million from investors, according to a securities filing, although it’s not clear how much it raised.

In 2013, he attached his name to an investment firm called Siskey Capital, led by Charlotte entrepreneur Marty Sumichrast. The firm has invested in multiple companies, including KURE Corp., which offers vaping lounge franchises.

KURE’s board includes some big names: Charlotte developer and former sports announcer Billy Packer and Anthony Kennedy Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan and childhood friend of Sumichrast. One of KURE’s latest franchisees is Houston Texans football star Jadeveon Clowney, who grew up in Rock Hill and has long known Sumichrast.

Siskey and his wife have also remained players on the Charlotte philanthropic and social scene.

In 2007, Siskey was among six dads named Father of the Year as part of a fundraiser. And in 2013, the Siskeys, who have two adult children, hosted hundreds at a wedding reception for their daughter at their Sharon Road home. At the conclusion, guests flocked to the lawn to watch the bride and groom leave in a helicopter.

In October the Siskeys held a circus-themed gala complete with fire eaters and stilt walkers that raised $300,000 for Best Buddies, a non-profit founded by Shriver, the KURE board member. Notable guests included Stephanie Rivera, wife of the Carolina Panthers coach, according to a Scoop Charlotte story.

In November, Siskey was also able to celebrate a World Series win by his Chicago Cubs. An Instagram photo shows the Siskeys’ massive front lawn painted with a blue-and-red Cubs logo.

Affidavit alleges scheme

Just weeks later, however, the Siskeys’ home would be named in a stunning federal court filing.

On Dec. 21, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer signed an order saying the property might be seized by the U.S. government. The order came after an FBI agent presented an affidavit alleging the property had been derived from proceeds of fraud.

In the early morning hours a week later, Rick Siskey committed suicide at his home, just four days after his 58th birthday. Hundreds attended his funeral at St. Gabriel Catholic Church on New Year’s Eve. The obituary asked mourners to contribute to Shriver’s Best Buddies charity given Siskey’s “passion for community support.”

Details of the FBI’s investigation were scarce until Friday when Cayer unsealed the affidavit at the Observer’s request.

It said investigators had been suspicious of Siskey’s activities since 2011, when the Labor Department was investigating the transactions involving the profit-sharing plans. By October 2015, law enforcement had opened an investigation focused on the TSI fund, according to the affidavit.

The document alleged Siskey was operating a textbook Ponzi scheme from January 2011 to December 2016: Instead of investing TSI funds, he was using the money for personal expenses and to repay investors who wanted their money back. Some of the investors were elderly and unsophisticated in the investment world, the affidavit said, with some even using money from deceased relatives’ insurance payouts.

From January 2011 to November 2015, Siskey had deposited about $16 million in TSI funds into a personal account, the affidavit says. Of that amount, Siskey spent about $15 million on payments to casinos, according to the document. He also doled out more than $400,000 to a local homebuilder, used $12,500 for a mortgage payment and shelled out $500,000 to car dealers for Bentley, Mercedes and other vehicles, the affidavit says.

On Dec. 12, investigators attempted to interview Siskey, and he could not provide details of TSI assets that could be used to pay back $19 million owed 100 investors, according to the document. After that, he ended the interview.

‘The clock of life’

The revelations have been troublesome for some of Siskey’s business associates.

Two days after investigators approached Siskey, the venture known as Siskey Capital filed to change its name to Stone Street Partners. Sumichrast, the firm’s managing partner, said in a letter to investors that authorities have confirmed that Stone Street Partners had no exposure to the investigation. “We continue to run our business and work on investments in our portfolio,” Sumichrast said in the letter, noting the firm is cooperating fully with authorities.

On Friday, Diane Siskey sent an email to her late husband’s investors expressing her “sincerest apologies for the frustrations you’re no doubt feeling concerning your investments,” adding: “Please know that I am doing all I can to get my arms around his many varied dealings.”

She added that she is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI and that it’s her intent to repay all investors and creditors to the “fullest extent possible.” The lawyer she has hired is Thomas Walker, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, now with Alston & Bird.

Asked whether the Siskey name would stay on the Matthews YMCA branch, spokeswoman Molly Thompson said the allegations were “troubling” but that there had not been a discussion on the matter “at this time.”

Since his death, an online video of Rick Siskey’s 2013 wedding toast at his daughter’s wedding has gained new viewers and taken on extra meaning in light of the unraveling of his career and his sudden death. With his white mane of hair contrasting with his black tuxedo, Siskey quoted a Robert H. Smith poem that touched on the fragility of life.

“The clock of life is wound but once,” Siskey said, “and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop.... Right now is the only time we have.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker

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