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For money manager, a hard fall from a lofty perch

Peter Eichler Jr. made a fortune running Aletheia, one of Southern California's largest money management firms. Then came a fast and painful fall.

February 16, 2013|By Walter Hamilton and Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

At Christmas, the firm gave employees Hermes ties and Louis Vuitton bags, Eichler said. Administrative assistants could get quarterly bonuses up to $25,000, he said.

In 2008, the year Eichler took home $33 million, Peikin was paid $15 million.

When Eichler discovered that Aletheia's in-house chef served cheaper tuna fish to employees than to him, he ordered that everyone get his favorite, Progresso solid light tuna in olive oil.

"He's an incredibly generous man," said Patricia Loncaric, Aletheia's controller. "When the company's doing well, you as an employee are doing well."

As for his spending, Eichler insisted that all of it was business-related and done to show that Aletheia was successful. Eichler claimed Peikin charged personal expenses to Aletheia, which Peikin denied.

"When I went to New York City, I got a very nice suite at the Four Seasons. I closed Merrill Lynch in that suite," Eichler said.

And he dismissed complaints about his compensation and lifestyle as overblown, saying lavish perks are de rigueur in his profession.

"Every top money manager or hedge fund manager has amazing cars," Eichler said. "There's nothing unique about that. That's not just me."

As the company grows, so does pay

As with many start-ups, Aletheia's early days were full of promise.

After working as a broker and money manager at Bear Stearns & Co., Eichler co-founded Aletheia — Greek for "truth" and "disclosure" — in 1997.

His family has a long history in Southern California finance. In 1931, his grandfather founded regional investment firm Bateman Eichler. The firm was sold in 1982.

Peikin, who represented Eichler in a custody dispute with his first wife, was to handle legal and other operations while Eichler picked stocks. Starting with $15 million in assets, the firm peaked at more than $10 billion in 2008, according to court records.

As the company expanded, so did Eichler's compensation and lifestyle.

Aletheia's revenue jumped to $78 million in 2008 from $35 million the prior year, according to Proctor's lawsuit. Yet profit barely edged up, to $5.9 million from $5.7 million, as compensation surged to $56 million from $17 million, according to the lawsuit.

Eichler hired Mel Gibson's former driver to ferry him around in the Maybach. He added the chef. And he invested Aletheia money in his second wife's start-up yoga studio.

Eichler had a fleet of leased luxury cars, including a 2012 Porsche 911 Turbo, a 2011 Ferrari and a 2007 Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Plus there was the $320,000 Maybach, according to DMV records.

Eichler's Pacific Palisades home has six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a movie screening room, a gourmet kitchen and a poolside fireplace, according to property records and an online sales listing. He bought the 9,000-square-foot house for $9.6 million in 2007.

"Peter had a taste for the finer things in life," Loncaric said. "Peter probably has never seen a house as small as mine, and my house is 2,000 square feet."

In 2010, Aletheia spent $5 million on an expansion of its 19th-floor office in Santa Monica, Eichler said in the interview. The firm put a slide show of the resplendent space on its website, which is now down.

"They're the nicest offices you've ever been in," said one former employee. "Million-dollar view. Million-dollar finishes."

Troubles mount at home and work

But myriad problems caught up with Aletheia and Eichler personally.

He paid $3.6 million in 2011 to settle his first wife's long-running claims for overdue child support, which she said he withheld even as he lived an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle. Ultimately, he sold a Malibu oceanfront home for more than $13 million to help pay the back support, according to records filed in the divorce case.

In October, as Aletheia prepared for bankruptcy, his second wife, Mavis Christine, filed for divorce.

The two lengthy SEC probes helped spur the client exodus, driving Aletheia's assets under management from $7.5 billion two years ago to less than $300 million, according to court records.

The first probe ended in 2011 when Eichler, Peikin and Aletheia paid a collective $400,000 to resolve SEC accusations that the firm didn't provide hedge fund investors with quarterly account statements and didn't inform potential clients about the results of prior SEC examinations. As is common in such settlements, Eichler and Peikin neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.

A more serious case came in December 2012 when the SEC filed a lawsuit accusing Eichler of defrauding hedge fund clients.

The agency alleges that Eichler stuffed losing trades into client accounts while assigning winning trades to himself. The trades were allocated more than an hour after they were done, when it was clear whether they were profitable or not, the SEC said.

Eichler denies wrongdoing, saying he had $300,000 of his own money in the hedge funds.

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