By Tom Huddleston Jr.
August 13, 2014

An Episcopal church in Indianapolis has cast the first stone in a battle with one of the world’s largest banks.

Christ Church Cathedral filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday accusing JPMorgan Chase & Co. of fraud and mismanagement of trusts that the church claims lost millions of dollars in value over almost a decade as a result of the bank’s investment strategy. The church is also accusing J.P. Morgan (JPM) of self-dealing and breaching its fiduciary duty by allegedly buying its own investment products with the church’s assets.

Between 2004 and 2013, the church claims, “J.P. Morgan caused the church trusts to lose approximately $13 million in value as a result of J.P. Morgan’s decisions to purchase over 177 different investment products, mostly from itself, using church funds because they produced the highest revenues to J.P. Morgan, to the detriment of Christ Church.” (A spokeswoman for J.P. Morgan declined to comment on the matter.)

The suit comes less than a week after multiple news outlets reported a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into whether J.P. Morgan has been steering its private-banking clients toward its own investment products and away from those offered by other banks. The SEC inquiry is reportedly running in parallel to a similar investigation by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The church claims J.P. Morgan used a “guided architecture” platform to steer clients, including the church’s trusts, to buy products that offered the bank the highest return, leaving Christ Church with what it claims were “toxic, unsuitable investments that were doomed to fail.” In all, the church claims J.P. Morgan used anywhere from 68% to 85% of the church’s trusts to buy its own products, including “private equity funds, structured notes and hedge funds, “many of which had no track record of success,” the complaint alleges.

At the same time, according to the complaint, J.P. Morgan’s disclosed fees increased from an average of $35,000 annually to $177,800. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

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