The SEC's Case Against Sir Robert Allen Stanford -- A Case Study in Investigative and Enforcement Failure

Since last year, we've followed the government's investigation and prosecution of Texan and Antiguan financier Sir Robert Allen Stanford for allegedly defrauding investors of billions in a Ponzi scheme. Well, as set forth in a 150 page Report of Investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the SEC has been following Stanford and his companies for much, much longer. OIG made the Report public yesterday. The Report reveals a stunning pattern of lack of diligence in SEC enforcement.

Stanford's investment advisor registered with the SEC in 1995. By 1997, the SEC's Fort Worth Office Examination Group had conducted an examination and concluded that the CDs Stanford and his companies were marketing were most likely a Ponzi scheme and that Stanford was allegedly engaging in fraud. However, despite the fact that the 1997 examination concluded that Stanford was likely engaging in a Ponzi scheme and referred the matter to the Fort Worth Office Enforcement Office, Enforcement staff did not open an investigation, or "matter under inquiry" (MUI), until May 1998. Enforcement sent Stanford Group Company (SGC) a voluntary request for documents. SGC refused to provide many of the requested documents, and the MUI was closed in August 1998.

The Examination Group conducted another examination of Stanford in 1998, and again concluded that the investments being offered by Stanford were highly suspicious. However, Enforcement staff did not listen to the Examination Group or review its report in deciding to close the investigation of Stanford and his companies.

A third examination of SGC was conducted in 2002 and once again concluded that the consistent above-market returns claimed by SGC were highly unlikely to be legitimate investments. The SEC again did not follow up on the examination, despite receiving conflicting representations from SGC regarding its due diligence and a growing number of complaints from outside entities confirming their suspicions.

In October of 2003, the SEC received a letter from the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) stating that Stanford's companies were engaged in an alleged massive Ponzi scheme. The Examination Group was asked to conduct a fourth investigation, which it did in October 2004. The investigation concluded that the CDs were part of "a very large Ponzi scheme." However, in March of 2005, senior Enforcement officials in Fort Worth learned of the Examination Group's fourth examination of Stanford and told them that "[Stanford] was not something they were interested in.”

Shortly thereafter, the head of Enforcement for the Fort Worth Office stepped down. The former head later sought to represent Stanford himself in proceedings by the SEC, despite the fact that he was involved in quashing the investigation of Stanford and his companies.

Enforcement sent Stanford International Bank (SIB) a second voluntary request for documents in August 2005. SIB refused to produce the requested documents. In November of 2005, Enforcement again closed its investigation of Stanford and his companies.

After the exposure of the Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff in December 2008, the SEC began to receive complaints regarding the fact that it had allowed Stanford and his companies to continue to engage in a Ponzi scheme. The SEC finally shut down Stanford's companies and froze their assets in February 2009. In October of 2009, Senator David Vitter and Senator Richard Shelby wrote a letter to the SEC asking it to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into its investigation and handling of the Stanford matter.

The OIG Report found that Enforcement staff were reluctant to pursue cases which were novel or complex, preferring to focus on cases which were "quick hits" or "slam dunks." The Report notes that, in the 12 years between the time that the SEC first gained knowledge that Stanford and his companies might be engaging in a Ponzi scheme and the time that the SEC took action to freeze their assets, investments in Stanford's CDs grew from $250 million to $1.5 billion. A survey was taken of investors in Stanford's scheme with 95% responding that knowledge of an inquiry by the SEC would have affected their decision to invest.


Sir Robert Allen Stanford's Congressional Ties and Prison Blues

So whatever happened to indicted billionaire Sir Robert Allen Stanford? Well, not much, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. Stanford, who is charged with allegedly defrauding investors of more than $7 billion, is still incarcerated, despite his extensive efforts to secure release prior to his trial since his arrest in June of last year. Stanford has submitted a report from a physician to U.S. District Judge David Hittner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in which the physician opines that Stanford is close to “a complete nervous breakdown.” Two psychiatrists have diagnosed Stanford with severe depression as a result of his confinement.

Stanford's counsel complained to the court that Stanford needed to have frequent communication with his defense team in order to review the more than 7 million documents in the case and answer questions by his counsel. Unmoved, Judge Hittner denied Stanford's latest motion for release in an order issued two days before Christmas, and Stanford has appealed the denial.

Stanford's trial is still a year away, scheduled to begin in January 2011. He has denied the government's charges, as well as civil fraud charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Also reported in the Chronicle, similar to confessed attorney/Ponzi schemer, Scott Rothstein, Stanford allegedly had many ties to politicians. The Department of Justice is investigating approximately $2.3 million dollars in alleged contributions from Stanford and his staff to politicians over the past decade, as well as $5 million paid to lobbyists.  Donations by Stanford and his staff included $40,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, $100,000 to the inaugural committee of George W. Bush and $500,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He furthermore set up his own lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. Stanford is alleged to have successfully lobbied to defeat legislation in Congress relating to financial secrecy and offshore banking which would have allegedly revealed his activities.

Stanford allegedly treated politicians to trips to the Carribean, hosting dinners with lobster and caviar. Illustrative of Stanford's high level government contacts was the fact that, mere hours after Stanford was arrested last year, Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, sent Stanford an e-mail stating that he "loved" Stanford and believed in him, and offering his advice or to listen to Stanford. Stanford and his staff contributed $44,375 to Sessions. Stanford entertained numerous Congressional delegations to the Carribean nation of Antigua, where Stanford was based, at a total cost of $311,307. Stanford also hosted a wedding dinner for New York Representative John Sweeney at a five-star restaurant owned by Stanford in Antigua, and held a cocktail fundraiser for Ohio Representative Bob Ney in Miami. Ney was later sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for accepting money and gifts from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Stanford opened a trust office in Miami in 2001, which allegedly enabled his bank to sell millions in certificates of deposit. This event allegedly prompted him to become involved in politics in order to prevent legislation which would have forced Stanford to reveal the source of the flow of monies to the office.

19 politicians have returned a total of $87,800 in contributions from Stanford to the court-appointed receiver. Other politicians have stated that they have donated money contributed by Stanford to charity, including $45,000 by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, and $11,800 by Representative Charlie Rangel.