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VOL. 124 | NO. 33 | Wednesday, February 18, 2009

STANFORD SHOCKER

Chair of Stanford Financial Group charged with $8B fraud

By Andy Meek

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ASTRONOMICAL ALLEGATIONS: In this June 11 photo, R. Allen Stanford waves during a cricket match. The Texas billionaire and leader of Stanford Financial Group is facing SEC charges of $8 billion in securities fraud.  -- AP PHOTO/LEFTERIS PITARAKIS

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has charged a Texas billionaire whose family of companies has deep ties to Memphis with an $8 billion securities fraud.

Asking for “emergency relief to halt a massive, ongoing fraud,” a complaint issued by the SEC Tuesday alleges the businessman, R. Allen Stanford – chairman of the Stanford Financial Group of companies – schemed to sell about $8 billion worth of certificates of deposit that promise higher returns than would have been available with genuine CDs offered by traditional banks.

Also named in the Texas complaint are James Davis, the chief financial officer of Stanford Financial Group Inc. who works in East Memphis’ Crescent Center, as well as Laura Pendergest-Holt, the chief investment officer of Stanford Financial Group. She supervises a group of analysts in Memphis, among other places, according to the SEC.

“Stanford and Davis have wholly failed to cooperate with the commission’s efforts to account for the $8 billion of investor funds purportedly held by SIB (Stanford International Bank, the banking unit of the family of companies),” the SEC’s complaint reads. “In short, approximately 90 percent of SIB’s claimed investment portfolio resides in a ‘black box’ shielded from any independent oversight.”

The particulars

Stanford’s banking unit claims $8.5 billion in assets, and its brokerage unit reportedly has about $50 billion in assets. The SEC alleges the bulk of the banking unit’s investment portfolio was monitored by two people – Stanford and Davis.

SEC COMPLAINT: Click on the image above to read the complete complaint filed by the SEC against Stanford Financial.

The company and its executives cast a long shadow in Memphis, as does the sprawling complaint unveiled this week.

Law enforcement personnel Tuesday entered Stanford offices in the U.S. in more than one city, including Memphis. Memphis FBI officials could not be reached by press time, but were believed to be seizing records there.

The day before the SEC’s allegations were unveiled, a Stanford Financial Group spokesman told The Daily News the company was cooperating with investigators.

“Both FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) and the SEC have stated to us that their recent visits to our offices were part of a routine examination,” said Brian Bertsch. “We have provided U.S. regulators with the information requested and intend to comply fully with any findings or recommendations they may issue.”

Bertsch would not confirm if the company’s Memphis office was one of six locations visited in January by the SEC and FINRA.

Far-reaching operation

More than three dozen police officers and other law enforcement officials entered two Stanford Group office buildings in Houston Tuesday morning, according to The New York Times.

Several key aspects of the case, meanwhile, point to activities of the company that unfolded in or are related to Memphis.

“SIB’s multi-billion (dollar) portfolio of investments is purportedly monitored by SFG’s chief financial officer in Memphis, Tenn.,” according to the SEC. That executive, James Davis, refused to appear and give testimony in the SEC investigation.

Meanwhile, “The bank’s (senior investment officer) was trained by Ms. Pendergest-Holt to tell investors that the bank’s multi-billion (dollar) portfolio was ‘monitored’ by the analyst team in Memphis,” the SEC’s complaint reads. “In communicating with investors, the SIO followed Pendergest’s instructions, misrepresenting that a team of 20-plus analysts monitored the bank’s investment portfolio. In so doing, the SIO never disclosed to investors that the analysts only monitor approximately 10 percent of SIB’s money.

“In fact, Pendergest-Holt trained the SIO ‘not to divulge too much’ about oversight of the bank’s portfolio because that information ‘wouldn’t leave an investor with a lot of confidence.’”

One spark that may have added fuel to the fire concerns allegations from former Stanford employees.

D. Mark Tidwell and Charles Rawl last year filed a wrongful termination suit in state court in Texas alleging “various unethical and illegal business practices, including overstating the asset value of individuals in a manner designed to mislead potential investors and purging electronic data from computers in response to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission,” according to a court filing in the Texas case. “According to Tidwell and Rawl, they left the company after realizing that they could possibly be implicated in the alleged illegal acts.”

Wellspring of support

The charges cast a dark cloud over a company that has been a generous benefactor of several causes in Memphis.

In the most recent edition of the Stanford Eagle, the in-house magazine of Stanford Financial Group, Stanford is shown seated among a quartet of children who all appear to be patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. All of them are smiling, and one is sitting on the businessman’s knee.

The annual Stanford St. Jude Championship alone has raised more than $19 million for the hospital since 1970. Stanford signed on as the major sponsor in 2007 after FedEx Corp. shifted its involvement.

The Houston-based financial services company, which operates an investment brokerage office in Memphis, provides financial support to the hospital as its “corporate charity of choice,” according to the magazine.

In the most recent edition of the magazine, Tony Thomas, the son of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, said Stanford’s chairman “has been a blessing for us and for the children and patients of St. Jude. … His support has resulted in $15 million in the last three years.”

Among the Memphis causes it supports, the Houston company is a corporate sponsor of the National Civil Rights Museum and a contributor to the Greater Memphis Arts Council, the Boys and Girls Club of Memphis and the Ave Maria Foundation of Memphis, according to a report from Stanford about its community investments. Stanford’s charitable foundation also is based in Memphis.

A reception several years ago to celebrate the company’s growth in Memphis was held at the home of local fashion designer Pat Kerr Tigrett, with guests including Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith, according to news accounts of the event.



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