Jacob Wohl’s high-profile partisan hijinx put him on the national radar of his political opponents, but it is his alleged criminal fraud in the investment world that have brought him to the attention of prosecutors and regulators
When Jacob Alexander Wohl appears in a Riverside County, California courtroom on October 24 to face criminal arraignment on a felony charge of illegally attempting to sell securities, the moment will open merely the latest bizarre chapter in Wohl’s transition from a high-profile political troll to an allegedly shady investment scammer.
The pending criminal case against Wohl, the 21-year-old son of FOX News on-air contributor and attorney David Wohl, isn’t so much a small beer in the world of alleged misdeeds involving investors’ money—it’s a Dixie Cup. But the allegations that have surfaced around Wohl and his myriad investment entities highlight the very real risks investors face in a world where celebrity status can provide a veneer of respectability for scam artists.
The dusty basin of Southern California’s Inland Empire is a world away from the Hollywood Hills and Washington beltway where Wohl first made a social media-fueled splash during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. On April 29, 2016, a Twitter account operated by NeX Management posted a photo of Wohl sidled up to a beaming Trump, who has his arm around Wohl as the pair flash thumbs-up signs, with the caption: “CEO Jacob Wohl with @realDonaldTrump last night.”
That Twitter post came just two months after Wohl’s entity, Nex Capital, registered as a commodity trading advisor with Wohl listed as a principal, according to an investigation by the National Futures Association (NFA), the regulatory agency for the commodities industry. The filings in the case noted that Wohl had already come to the NFA’s attention in March 2015 after the financial blog ValueWalk.com published a post entitled ‘High School Jock Turned Hedge Fund Trader—Is Regulatory Trouble Ahead?’
The article reported that Wohl appeared to be acting as a hedge fund trader with approximately 20 clients and $200,000 under management, according to the NFA’s investigation. But since Wohl had no regulatory registration in any capacity the commodities agency referred the information to “other regulatory authorities.”
In early 2016, shortly after Wohl and Nex Capital registered with the NFA, the agency was tipped off to allegedly questionable marketing materials that the company had sent to potential investors. “NFA was concerned when it found that Nex Capital’s promotional materials included numerous examples of positive hypothetical performance, were missing disclosures and mentioned that Wohl managed customer funds prior to Wohl and Nex Capital’s registration as a commodity trading advisor,” the NFA’s report stated.
Then in May 2016, less than a month after Wohl posted his photo with Trump, the NFA received a formal complaint from an investor who had placed $75,000 with another Wohl investment entity, Wohl Capital Investment Group. According to the NFA’s report, the investor received a statement showing his investment had grown to $89,000 but when he attempted to contact Wohl to cash out he was unable to reach him. When he finally did receive a check, it was for $44,000. The livid investor provided NFA investigators with the promotional material Wohl had used to pitch him, including claims of 149-percent returns and assurances that Wohl had been trading for nine years—which would mean Wohl entered the investment game at the tender age of 10-years-old.
The investor complaint triggered a bizarre wild goose chase of ‘Where’s Wohl?’
On June 20, 2016, a team of NFA investigators arrived unannounced at a Hollywood Hills residential address that Wohl had provided the agency as Nex Capital’s office. According to its report, the NFA’s investigators made multiple attempts to reach Wohl there and on one occasion reported seeing “what appeared to be someone on the second or third floor opening up the curtains and taking video or pictures of the examination team with what appeared to be a cell phone.”
The NFA investigators then learned that the address Wohl provided as the location where Nex Capital’s records were stored was actually a random office at La Sierra University in Riverside. According to its report, a final effort by investigators to reach Wohl at a Corona, California, residence he had listed with agency also ended in failure.
However, the NFA’s tour provoked an angry phone call from Wohl’s father, the attorney and FOX News contributor David Wohl, who told investigators that his son and Nex Capital had “withdrawn from NFA membership” and insisted therefore the NFA “no longer had any authority over Wohl or his company.” The elder Wohl also warned investigators they would face “legal action with the Los Angeles Police Department” if they persisted in attempting to interview his son. Wohl’s father followed up with an email that accused the NFA of stalking his son and threatened it with civil and criminal actions, according to the agency’s report.
On March 2, 2017, the NFA slapped Jacob Wohl with a lifetime ban from commodity futures trading. But Wohl’s troubles didn’t end there.
On September 27, 2016, the Arizona Corporation Commission issued Wohl, business partner Matthew Johnson and three associated entities; Wohl Capital Investment Group, Nex Capital Management and Montgomery Assets, Inc., with a cease and desist order after alleging they had fraudulently misled investors. According to the order, Wohl had promised returns of 15 to 45-percent within a month on real estate-related offerings and in another instance represented “a 99.5-percent probability of profit” to a prospective investor. The commission noted that Wohl and his entities were neither licensed real estate brokers in California or Arizona nor licensed securities brokers with FINRA.
If these continuous run-ins with regulatory authorities gave Wohl pause for thought, he did not show it, and by the fall of 2018 he was embroiled in what Talking Points Memo, the liberal political blog, described as “clumsy and widely mocked schemes” to influence the national political conversation.
Perhaps the most notorious of those ‘schemes’ was an apparent effort to spread a fabricated claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had sexually assaulted a woman in 2010. On October 29, 2018, Wohl posted to Twitter: “Several media sources tell me that a scandalous story about Mueller is breaking tomorrow. Should be interesting. Stay tuned.” His post was retweeted more than 2,500 times before Wohl’s was revealed to be an amateur scam.
According to an NBC News report, Vermont Law School professor Jennifer Taub said she received an email from Surefire Intelligence offering her money to talk about “past encounters” with Robert Mueller. Another woman named Lorraine Parsons reportedly told several reports that Jack Burkman of Surefire Intelligence offered her $20,000 “to make accusations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment against Robert Mueller.” According to Business Insider, the women were reportedly asked to sign sworn affidavits saying “Mueller assaulted them at the St. Regis Hotel in New York on August 2, 2010.” When informed, Mueller’s team turned the information over to the FBI, according to a statement from the Special Counsel’s office.
Despite his assertions that he was not involved with the scheme, Wohl was exposed in the media as the founder of ‘Surefire Intelligence.’ The company purported to be a Washington, DC-based “private intel agency” that specializes opposition research and M&A advisory. The company’s domain name, surefireintelligence.com, was registered using the email address Jacob.Wohl@nexmanagement.com, according to both NBC News and an investigative journalism website Bellingcat. The website Vox also reported that the phone number for Surefire Intelligence belonged to Wohl’s mother and that it rings to her voicemail.
Even more bizarre was the LinkedIn profiles of Surefire’s purported team members identified by journalists, including Surefire’s ‘Tel Aviv Station Chief,’ ‘Deputy Director of Operations’ and ‘Head of Government Relations.’ All the profiles featured altered photos. The New Yorker determined that one of those profiles for a Surefire Managing Partner named Mattew Cohen was Wohl himself. While another profile of an investigator named Simon Frick used a photo of actor Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), others had cribbed stock photos of professional models and even a Baptist Minister from Michigan.
Amid the surreal unfolding of events last fall, Vox noted wryly: “So it looks like Surefire is essentially Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill doing a series of different voices over the phone to convince prosecutors that a whole church congregation supports his client.”
As Wohl’s criminal court date approaches next month, one has to wonder what investors were thinking when they wrote large checks to the guy without even doing basic research into his background. Buyer beware, indeed.