Citi wealth adviser accused of steering older clients into money-losing film projects

The horror film producer is accused in court docs of soliciting investments from elder clients, part of what experts say is a growing national trend of financial professionals preying on older Americans and their bank accounts.

The exterior of a Citibank branch on Michigan Avenue in Chicago

Jonah Newman

The Michigan Avenue branch of Citibank in downtown Chicago, where former wealth adviser Helen Grace Caldwell worked. Caldwell is accused in a lawsuit of persuading several older wealth-management clients to invest in her films.

This story is part of a series about elder financial exploitation in Illinois. You can read more stories in the series here.

By day, Helen Grace Caldwell was a wealth adviser and a vice president in the Michigan Avenue offices of America’s third largest bank, Citi.

Caldwell also was a movie producer, making horror films featuring vampires, knife-slashing heroes, and electroshocked psychiatric patients.

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At the crossroads of those two careers, several of her elderly banking clients lost much of their life savings — and the Wall Street banking behemoth was plunged into a legal battle amid a national epidemic of elder financial exploitation.

Caldwell, 58, funded her film career in part by persuading Citi clients to invest their savings in her film ventures, an alleged fraud costing them as much as $1 million, according to a lawsuit filed against the banking giant and its former vice president by the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian, an agency created to protect the interests of people no longer capable of managing their affairs.

Caldwell, through her attorney, has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. Citi lawyers have also denied the allegations in court.

The old and frail have long been targeted by swindlers who knock on their doors with offers of a new roof or sweetheart scams or even trusted relatives and health care givers who use their access to plunder savings accounts.

Now, growing numbers of financial professionals are preying on their older clients from behind the glass doors of banks, investment houses, and wealth-management companies.

Fraud against older Americans in investment schemes accounted for nearly a third of all $3.1 billion in elder financial exploitation nationwide last year, up from less than 10% just three years ago, according to FBI data.

Reported losses from investment scams against older Americans have increased tenfold in the past three years to nearly $1 billion in 2022.

The Public Guardian’s suit was filed on behalf of one of Caldwell’s older clients who is now living in a nursing home with dementia, but it alleges Caldwell misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars from the savings of three other clients, as well, using the money in her film ventures.

Last month, the U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority permanently barred Caldwell from working in the securities industry citing her refusal to provide on-the-record testimony for its investigation into cases when she steered “several” Citi clients “to invest in her outside business activity.”

Citi executives declined to be interviewed or respond to detailed questions regarding Caldwell. In court, a Citi attorney has argued the bank should not be held liable for damages that might have been caused by its former vice president’s conduct.

“My clients don’t believe the public guardian has claims against my client,” said one Citi attorney in a recent probate court appearance in which the guardian’s suit is being litigated. The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago is also investigating the circumstances around client losses, according to interviews and documents reviewed by Injustice Watch. Federal authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Caldwell has not been charged with crimes.

She declined to answer questions provided to her and her attorney. On her personal website, Caldwell describes herself as a financial services professional, philanthropist, and award-winning filmmaker. The website features photos of her in a Mercedes and enjoying a drink at a harbor as the sun sets.

A screenshot from Helen Grace Caldwell’s personal website, which describes her as a financial services professional, award-winning filmmaker, and philanthropist.

‘Such an injustice’

To examine Caldwell’s case, Injustice Watch reviewed the probate court file, as well as records obtained through various confidential sources, including reports from Illinois’ Department on Aging, internal Citi check registers, Caldwell’s Citi personnel file, and email correspondence, as well as production files from her film projects.

The allegations, if true, provide another example in a four-month Injustice Watch investigation into Illinois’ tattered safety net for disabled older adults who are losing their life savings at record levels even as enforcement plummets.

“If the public guardian’s court allegations are accurate, the bank is at fault here in not exercising appropriate oversight over their advisers. That is clearly wrong,” said Harvard Business School professor Rohit Deshpandé, one of five experts on banking and business ethics interviewed.

Citi annually approved Caldwell’s outside film company business during the same years the suit alleges she was using her client’s funds, records show. Experts say if the allegations are true, the bank failed in its fiduciary responsibility to protect their customers from such conflicts.

But even more serious breakdowns center on a fractured system of government oversight that relies on banks like Citi to self-report suspicious activity to authorities, who then often do little to stop it.

Citi reported Caldwell’s activity to the state’s Department on Aging’s Adult Protective Services division, known as APS, in March 2022 — after years of complaints by the family member of one of her bank clients and four months after Caldwell left her job at Citi, according to court records.

Illinois officials declined to act on Citi’s report citing jurisdictional grounds. APS — created to investigate abuse of the older and disabled adults — refused to take action because the client “was not being exploited by a family member, roommate, or caregiver,” Citi wrote in Cook County probate court documents.

It wasn’t until six weeks later that Citi officials sent a second report to APS — this time not identifying misconduct by its own officer but alleging $7,000 in other misspending, court records show.

That’s when the case finally landed on the desk of Joyce Austin, a veteran APS investigator with the Chicago-based nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services, one of dozens of social service agencies the state hires to investigate exploitation of disabled and older adults.

Austin’s inquiries triggered the public guardian’s investigation into the case of 77-year-old Priscilla Eddings, who according to court records wrote 13 checks totaling $400,500 to Caldwell’s film ventures between 2018 and 2020.

Retired nurse Priscilla Eddings, who was a wealth-management client of Helen Grace Caldwell’s, wrote 13 checks totaling $400,500 to Caldwell’s film ventures between 2018 and 2020, court records show. (Provided)

“I will tell you this is really personal for me. As a Black woman, I saw myself,” Austin said in an interview. “It makes you a little angry, where you have to do something because it’s such an injustice.”

Austin notified Chicago police she was making an unannounced visit to the home address listed for Eddings — a three-story home near Marquette Park — telling police she would text to confirm she was OK when she left.

This protocol ensured there would be an official record of her whereabouts if things in the house turned violent, even in cases such as Eddings’ where no violence is alleged.

“Many times, walking into the homes, we’re not only dealing with the victim, but the abusers are in the environment,” said Austin’s supervisor Osvaldo Caballero. “We’re walking to an unknown. And caseworkers like Joyce are walking by themselves.”

“I pulled forward all of my experiences,” Austin told Injustice Watch. “During the investigative stage, I’m digging. I’m uncovering a box in a hole. I’m very focused on trying to help the victim. I just feel that is my place. And I put my mind in that place.”

A portrait of a Black woman with long hair and glasses standing in a mostly dark and empty office.

Sebastián Hidalgo for Injustice Watch

Joyce Austin, a veteran Adult Protective Services investigator with the nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services, triggered a set of government probes into Helen Caldwell.

A long court battle

In court, Citi fought for months to prevent disclosure of its internal investigation report on Caldwell. Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert’s office wants the report to help it recover losses of Eddings and other “similarly situated victims,” court records show.

“Depositors would be astounded to learn that if a bank official steals their money, the bank is going to hire lawyers and slam the door in their face when they try to get their money back,” Golbert said in an interview. “Citi hired very expensive lawyers who fought us at every step of the way, and we are having to sue.”

Cook County Circuit Judge Jesse Outlaw has told Citi it must turn over the report and has given the bank until October to do so.

Other internal Citi records indicate Caldwell’s alleged conflicts of interest went unchecked at the bank for years, including one email chain in the public court record.

That email exchange shows in February 2018, a Citi fraud analyst asked about a $75,000 check Eddings wrote from a Citi account to one of Caldwell’s film production companies.

“The account has not had a check written on it for over two years,” the Citi analyst wrote. “The account is overdrawn, as well.”

It isn’t clear from available records what became of the bank’s internal inquiry.

By then, Caldwell allegedly held substantial control over Eddings. Caldwell was listed as the “responsible party” for her monthly bills at Brookdale Senior Living on North Lake Shore Drive. Brookdale’s internal Account History Report shows the bills were sent to Caldwell’s Citi office at 100 S. Michigan Ave.

As Citi was questioning Caldwell about that first Eddings transaction, the son of another alleged victim was coming forward with questions.

A white man sitting at a desk looking through papers.

Sebastián Hidalgo for Injustice Watch

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert is suing Citi to recover alleged losses from one of Helen Caldwell’s former clients.

“Helen was always super charming, and she figured out that my mom didn’t like to be embarrassed or make other people look bad,” said Peter Duenas-Brckovich, whose 83-year-old mother gave Caldwell $18,000 for a 16% stake in a movie company Caldwell helped finance, according to records he provided and his interview.

“Using that manipulation really bothers me. She was taking advantage of my mom’s personality,” said Duenas-Brckovich, a banking executive living overseas. “Clearly, she knew that something was off with my mom. I hated how Helen did that.”

Responding to questions via email, Caldwell’s attorney Jasmani Francis disputed Duenas-Brckovich’s account, accusing him of launching a “frivolous campaign to defame and vilify” Caldwell.

Experts: Citi had a fiduciary duty

As an investment adviser, Caldwell owed a basic fiduciary duty to Eddings: to act in good faith and show loyalty and care, said University of Virginia professor William J. Wilhelm Jr.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that Citi would view this as acceptable behavior. It does suggest to me a significant failure in their compliance system,” Wilhelm said.

That fiduciary duty is the basis of the “best interest” regulation of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and it extended to Citi, said Georgetown University associate professor James J. Angel. “This is the kind of thing that I would hope the SEC is investigating. It sounds like fraud to me.”

FINRA instructs banks to seek a trusted contact for the accounts of clients older than age 65. Yet Duenas-Brckovich claimed Citi stonewalled him as he sought answers about Caldwell’s film investments and his mother’s gyrating account balance.

“I’ve worked in finance for 30 years. If Helen did disclose her outside interest, that means she should have definitely asked Citi for permission to let my Mom do that investment in the film ‘Hunter’ — which by the way was written off to zero,” Duenas-Brckovich said.

“It’s not like Helen had a little operation on the side that was hidden. She had a visible online presence.”

Caldwell’s dual career paths

Before she came to Citi in 2012, Caldwell had a history of complaints and regulatory actions during her wealth-management career.

Soon after beginning her first job at a Chicago brokerage firm in 1991, at age 26, records show her clients “claim(ed) that their accounts were short,” according to FINRA reports. Caldwell alleged errors were made by her bosses.

In 2008, when she was a broker in a JPMorgan Chase investment division, the global banking giant settled another complaint by paying her clients more than $300,000 after they alleged she made misrepresentations and an unsuitable recommendation in a securities investment, records show.

In 2012, Citi hired Caldwell as a financial adviser for its brokerage and retail banking divisions, internal Citi documents show.

In court filings, Citi acknowledged Caldwell’s “dual-hat” role, which might help explain Citi’s alleged oversight failures. Injustice Watch found Caldwell’s clients were writing checks to her film ventures from their Citibank checking accounts, but those transactions were not listed in their Citiglobal investment portfolios. The two bank divisions were not sharing information about her film ventures, court records state.

By 2013, Caldwell was meeting with film producers and saying she could raise money to invest in films through a company she launched named Canal Productions LLC, according to records and interviews with her film partners.

Canal Productions “provided funding to way beyond the level we ever thought possible up to that point,” script writer Jason Kellerman said in an interview with an online blog. Kellerman wrote the script for the film “Hunter,” about a former martial artist who battles the undead to avenge his murdered family.

Kellerman’s film script was listed among the 50 best horror/thrillers at the South by Southwest screenplay competition.

The movie — filmed in part at Caldwell’s Humboldt Park home beginning in 2014 — was released four years later with Caldwell credited as a producer. It was selected as “Best Horror Feature” at the 2018 Manhattan Film Fest and “Best Feature” at the Freakshow Horror Film Fest.

Caldwell’s Canal Productions was incorporated in January 2014, and records show Citi supervisors annually approved this outside business affiliation. Caldwell’s credits include at least 14 projects and films, according to her online biography on

Records also show Caldwell used her position at Citi to conduct film business. In one 2015 chain copied to her Citi email account, Caldwell offered to meet a School of the Art Institute of Chicago filmmaker at Citi to discuss financing his documentary.

“I am in my office this Friday on Michigan Ave next to yours. If you’d like to come by to talk briefly, I can in the morning,” she wrote in the email.

‘That was my WTF moment’

One of Caldwell’s clients was Catherine Duenas, now 83, who invested $18,000 in a film project with Caldwell, according to her son, who provided a tax form showing the investment.

A close-up of a man in a Lehman Brothers hat and an older woman with their arms around each other. In the background is a frozen lake with a sunset.

Provided by Peter Duenas-Brckovich

Peter Duenas-Brckovich, left, with his mother, Catherine Duenas. She invested in one of Helen Caldwell’s film projects, according to a tax form he provided and his interview.

Duenas-Brckovich said he became aware of the movie investment during a meeting in summer 2017 between him, his mother, and Caldwell in her Citi offices on South Michigan Avenue. He said he had no idea at the time the film was Caldwell’s vampire film.

At the meeting, he said, Caldwell rebuffed his requests for term sheets — the standard investment report showing corporate governance and investor payout or exit strategies.

“I go, ‘A structured note? I’d like to know how it works.’ Helen is like, ‘Oh, I can’t tell you,’” Duenas-Brckovich claimed in an interview.

Duenas-Brckovich said it bothered him when Caldwell turned to his mother and allegedly said: “‘Oh, Catherine, you know about that!’ My mom is, ‘Of course, of course.’”

Duenas-Brckovich said he finally obtained a tax report showing his mother held a worthless 16% interest in a company that helped produce “Hunter.”

“That was my WTF moment,” said Duenas-Brckovich.

Amid Duenas-Brckovich’s complaints to Citi, Caldwell left the banking behemoth in November 2021 and registered as a broker with Wells Fargo Clearing Services in Chicago, FINRA reports and internal Citi records show.

She was discharged by Wells Fargo in September 2022 “following an internal review concerning the accuracy of disclosures that Caldwell made to the firm” about her outside business activities, FINRA records show.

A Wells Fargo spokesperson wouldn’t comment.

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