Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stanford goes missing as worried investors pull funds

WASHINGTON: Authorities were trying to track down Texas billionaire financier Allen Stanford on Thursday as fraud charges against the cricket impresario prompted panicked investors to withdraw cash from his banks.

Two days after the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused Stanford, 58, of perpetrating "a fraud of shocking magnitude," SEC officials were still in the dark about his whereabouts -- as were close members of his family.

Authorities in the Caribbean island of Antigua —the centre of Stanford's financial empire — and in parts of South America meanwhile sought to quell fears among depositors as big queues formed outside branches of his bank.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle newspaper, Stanford's 81-year-old father James said he understood that authorities were searching for his son, but insisted he had no idea where his son could be.

"I'd spoken to him a week or so ago — he'd called — about problems with the business climate in general, but nothing of this magnitude," he said.

"I cannot imagine, I cannot believe, I will not believe what is being alleged actually happened.

"I cannot believe that my son would run," he added.

Reports also emerged on Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an investigation into whether Stanford was involved in laundering drug money for Mexico's powerful Gulf cartel.

ABC News, citing unnamed federal officials, said Mexican police detained one of Stanford's private planes and found checks inside believed to be linked to the ultra-violent cartel.

The network also reported that Stanford spent eight million dollars in Washington wooing lobbyists and lawmakers, and that red-faced lawmakers, including former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, were scrambling to return or donate thousands of dollars Stanford gave to their campaigns.

A substantial portion of Stanford's clients are in South America, where the Venezuelan government issued a request for more information from US authorities.

"They are wondering what will be done with Stanford Bank in Venezuela," finance minister Ali Rodriguez said Wednesday.

"At the moment, we are investigating what repercussions may have occurred with the institution abroad, while at the same time we are asking US authorities about the real situation."

Rodriguez added that Venezuela's finances were "secure and stable."

In Ecuador, transactions at the Stanford Financial Group were temporarily suspended on Wednesday and Stanford representatives barred from engaging in any trading or other business in the Quito stock market.

In Antigua, hundreds of people queued up Wednesday at the Stanford-owned Bank of Antigua to withdraw funds. For the past two decades, Stanford has been based in the Caribbean, where he has built a reputation as a cricket patron.

Late Tuesday, Antigua's Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer rushed to assure depositors that their money was safe.

Spencer said the Stanford charges "have profound serious implications for Antigua and Barbuda," but that the government and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) were "putting in place a contingency plan."

"Therefore there is no need for panic," he added.

While the Bank of Antigua has not been officially implicated in the fraud, another offshore bank, Stanford International Bank (SIB), has been involved in Stanford's alleged scheme.

The SEC filed civil charges Tuesday against Stanford for what they called a fraud "of shocking magnitude" in selling 9.2 billion dollars in securities, "promising ... improbable high interest rates."

A US district judge consequently froze Stanford's assets.

He ran the most high-profile alleged scheme since Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff was charged in a 50-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme in December.

Aside from SIB, Stanford's companies include Houston-based broker-dealer and investment adviser Stanford Group Company, and investment adviser Stanford Capital Management.

Stanford's wealth management and financial services group has offices across North America, Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean.

The scandal has also caused huge embarrassment in English cricket with the bosses of the national association facing calls to resign after they signed a now unraveling deal with Stanford to stage matches in Antigua and England.


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