Allen Stanford Jurors Weigh Claim He Used Bank as Personal Cash Machine

R. Allen Stanford “flushed” investor money away on failing businesses, yachts and cricket tournaments, prosecutors told jurors who are deliberating on whether the Texas financier led a massive Ponzi scheme.

If Stanford’s customers knew what he was really doing with their money, they wouldn’t have bought certificates of deposit issued by his Antigua bank, Justice Department lawyer William Stellmach said in Houston federal court yesterday at the close of the financier’s five-week fraud trial.

“The truth is that he flushed it away,” Stellmach said. “He told depositors he was using their money in one way and the truth was completely different.”

Stanford, 61, is accused of leading a $7 billion scheme funded through the sale of CDs issued by Stanford International Bank Ltd. Some of the CDs were sold in the U.S. by the Houston- based securities firm, Stanford Group Co. He faces 14 criminal counts, including mail fraud and wire fraud, that each carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison.

The jury has deliberated 10 hours over two days and will resume tomorrow. No verdict will be announced before March 5, because the judge presiding over the trial is away.

‘No Deceit’

Stanford’s attorneys rested their case Feb. 27 without calling their client to the stand. In his closing argument, defense lawyer Ali Fazel said “there was no deceit and this man is not guilty.”

During closing statements, Stanford sat in a packed courtroom dressed in a navy blue double-breasted suit, a light blue shirt and, for the first time since the trial began, a necktie. As Stellmach addressed the jury, Stanford took notes at the defense table, occasionally shaking his head.

The prosecutor outlined for the jury what he called the three big lies of the alleged scheme: Stanford was making safe, liquid investments; clients’ money was protected by banking regulators and auditors; and Stanford had sufficient assets to repay investors.

“For him, the bank was his own personal ATM,” Stellmach said. Before he was indicted, Stanford ranked among the world’s richest people by taking depositors’ funds for his own use, according to the government.

“He was never a rich person; he was a thief,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Costa said. “He was living a billionaire’s lifestyle on their money. Fraud is just theft wearing a business suit.”

Accepted Standards

During the trial, Stanford’s defense lawyers argued that his banking disclosures complied with internationally accepted accounting standards. They also contended he had sufficient assets in an array of private enterprises to repay all investors. They said Stanford was consolidating these companies onto the bank’s balance sheets when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued him for fraud and seized his businesses in February 2009.

The federal judge overseeing the SEC case in Dallas appointed a receiver to marshal and liquidate his holdings to repay investors.

“He sank billions to keep afloat his businesses in the Caribbean,” Stellmach said, describing Stanford’s private ventures as “money pits.”

By 2008, the bank owed investors $7 billion that didn’t exist, Stellmach said.

‘Digging That Hole’

“Stanford had been digging that hole for years with his lavish lifestyles and loser companies,” he said.

Stanford secretly borrowed $2 billion from the bank, the government said. Prosecutors told jurors that was enough money to build Houston’s Reliant Stadium and buy the city’s National Football League franchise, the Houston Texans, and still have enough money to own the local National Basketball Association team, the Houston Rockets.

Fazel told the panel there are gaps in the “evidentiary bridge” built by prosecutors and cautioned jurors not to leap to the conclusion that Stanford is guilty.

“This case isn’t about Reliant Stadium, it’s not about Rockets and it’s not about the Texans,” Fazel said. “It’s about assumption, presumption, guesses and reasonable doubt.”

Robert Scardino, another of Stanford’s attorneys, challenged the credibility of former Stanford Chief Financial Officer James M. Davis, whom he described as the government’s “key witness.”

Baylor Roommates

Davis, whose relationship with Stanford traces back to when they were Baylor University roommates, pleaded guilty to fraud- related charges in 2009 and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. He testified against Stanford for five days.

“The key witness in their case has got to be one of the biggest liars you ever heard about or read about,” Scardino said of Davis. He told the jury that to believe the government’s case against Stanford, “you have to believe Davis.”

Scardino echoed Fazel’s theme that investors weren’t deceived and had been told they were taking a risk.

“It’s the bank’s money, they can invest it however they wish,” Scardino said. “It just wasn’t the depositors’ business to know how it was invested.”

The defense asked jurors not to be distracted by prosecutors’ repeated references to the financier’s yachts, private jets and “domineering” personality.

“Sure, he’s a big rich guy, sometimes hard to like, sometimes hard to get along with,” Scardino said. “But there’s no law against that.”

Prosecutors asked jurors to focus on the evidence and not on Stanford’s “lottery ticket defenses” that his dreams of developing an island resort for billionaires or promoting cricket as a global spectator sport would somehow “work out” to recoup his investments.

“Don’t let him pull one last great con job,” Costa urged jurors. “Hold him accountable for the lies he’s told for 20 years.”

The criminal case is U.S. v. Stanford, 09-cr-00342, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Houston).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston federal court at laurel@calkins.us.com; Andrew M. Harris in Houston federal court at aharris16@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.