If you have a complaint against a Certified Financial Planner, there’s a grievance procedure you may not have known about. The CFP Board of Standards in Denver, Colo., is putting more effort into enforcing its code of ethics.

Sanctions for wrongdoers are mild, to say the least. Injured consumers should first complain in writing to their state securities office or to the National Association of Securities Dealers in Washington, D.C., if the planner sells mutual funds or variable annuities.

But the decisions of the CFP board might lead to stronger sanctions than the board alone can provide.

The CFP designation or mark shows that planners have taken courses in various aspects of financial planning. To keep up their right to use the CFP, they have to take an additional 30 hours of financial education every two years.

CFP marks are not supposed to be issued to people with serious disciplinary records in other lines of financial sales. Potential CFPs are supposed to disclose any such problems to the board, but it’s hardly surprising when they don’t.

Stockbrokers and insurance agents licensed to sell investment-based insurance products have a file at the Central Registration Depository, maintained by the NASD and state securities regulators. It discloses employment history and any reported legal problems or disciplinary actions.

Since early 1995, the CFP standards board has been checking the CRD before licensing new planners. Around two-thirds of them have a file.

The board also checks with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to see if a candidate who sells insurance has ever been formally disciplined. State insurance commissioners don’t do nearly as much policing as the securities industry does. Still, it makes sense to look.

Certified Financial Planners have to renew their CFP designations every two years. The board has begun to check CRDs at renewal, too, its associate general counsel, Karen Stevens, told my associate, Kate O’Brien Ahlers.

Right now, only around 10 percent of the names are checked at renewal. The goal is to check them all.

The CFP Board of Standards, however, isn’t a regulatory body. If a planner violates its rules, all it can do is revoke his or her right to use the CFP mark. Some customers look for a CFP, others don’t.

Jimmy W. Villalobos of La Mesa, Calif., had his CFP designation revoked last year. He had failed to disclose that the NASD had fined him $20,000 for failing to supervise stockbrokers he was responsible for and later revoked his securities license. He also didn’t disclose other disciplinary matters, including an arbitration, the board said.

Villalobos says the arbitration against him was settled and the problem with the brokers was in a branch office different from his.

Regarding his CFP designation, “No one knew what it was anyway,” he says, and losing it didn’t hurt his business. He says he’s now in “investment banking, mortgage lending.”

A CFP in Virginia, whose designation was suspended for not meeting the requirement for continuing education, laughed it off. He called the initials “detrimental,” because “most people with the CFP designation are selling securities and life insurance.”

But Neal Sullivan, executive director of the North American Securities Administrators Association in Washington, D.C., praised the CFP board for “attempting to raise professional standards in the industry.”

The states are charged with disciplining financial planners. Sullivan says they may investigate people fingered by the CFP board. And in fact, a state investigator paid a personal call on the Virginia CFP.

That’s why you should report a problem with a planner. It’s another way of bringing that planner to the authorities’ attention.

To check on the current status of any planner’s CFP designation, call the board at 888-CFP-MARK or dial up the Web at

To trigger a formal investigation, telephone for a grievance packet. You have to back up your charge with written evidence.

The organization accepts complaints only about breaches of ethics (integrity, objectivity, competence, fairness, confidentiality, professionalism and diligence). It doesn’t address fee disputes per se or reasonable investments that went sour.

The CFP board seems sincere but is also forgiving. For example, it found that one planner had sent out a misleading sales letter for an investment that had been “enjoined in at least two states.” His punishment? A letter of admonition, but he got to keep his CFP.

Auto insurance reform

There’s bad news for advocates (like me) of reforming the mess otherwise known as auto insurance.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman backed off her attempt to improve her state’s law. Speaking of her opponents, she had said, “If they want a fight, we’ll give it to them.” Then she caved without a visible battle wound.

Next question: What will happen in Congress, where Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has just introduced the Auto Choice Reform Act, which would let you vote with your dollars on what kind of auto coverage you’d like to have.

In the past, no-lawsuit plans have almost always been diluted or blocked by trial lawyers, who earn an estimated $17 billion a year from auto accident cases. Reforms are also opposed by consumers who don’t understand the loopholes in the present system and fantasize that they’ll win a jackpot if an errant car plows into them.

Officially, Sen. McConnell remains optimistic about the federal plan. If adopted, Auto Choice would cut the cost of auto insurance by an average of $243 a year for drivers choosing the lower-cost option and even more in high-cost states, according to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

Herman Brandau, associate general counsel for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance, thinks that estimate too high but says that the savings would be “substantial.”

No-fault would recompense more people more of the time. By passing Auto Choice, Congress would give you a chance to find out.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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