By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
It was a postcard-perfect January afternoon in Scottsdale, a winter's day more like a postcard-perfect spring afternoon. Some 60 Stanford Group Company "wealth managers" had flown to Arizona for the company's quarterly meeting—the kind most of these advisors might have skipped most other quarters. But not this one, not now, not "with the world in turmoil," says one of the 60 in attendance.
"We wanted to hear it," says Lawrence Messina, a former wealth manager in the 10-person Crescent Court offices of Stanford Group. And they wanted to hear it from the man himself: R. Allen Stanford, the cricket king from Houston by way of Mexia who built a banking empire on the tiny Caribbean island of Antigua claimed to be worth upward of $50 billion.
Weeks before, Stanford had been in Dallas to reassure the locals all was well, despite what Messina calls, with some understatement, "the tough economy." For three years, Messina sold the now-infamous Stanford certificates of deposit, which provided an unfathomable rate of return of nearly 10 percent in compounded annual interest—"about six percentage points higher than prevailing bank U.S. rates at the time," explained a recent Wall Street Journal story.
But as the economy crumbled, investors were making runs on the banks and cashing out early on the very CDs Stanford was selling. Only, Stanford had an out: His deal with investors allowed him to cut off their ability to early withdraw whenever he saw fit. Never happened before, but, well, times were tight. So off to Arizona Messina went, looking for reassurance that early withdrawal would be allowed—and the boss' word that all was well.
He'd heard it earlier: Messina says that last November, Stanford was in Dallas, recruiting a fresh-faced batch of advisors for his sales team. Stanford hung around an extra hour, explaining how he'd just replenished his company's rainy-day reserves no less with an extra $540 million, which pushed it past a billion dollars. He smiled and said, "Don't worry."
"He told me they had enough money to cover six months of [CD] redemptions," Messina says. "I think his quote was, 'It's really unfortunate that the world is in the place that it's in right now,' and he said, 'We are going to continue to do what we can do to help everybody.'"
Which is just what Messina liked about working for Stanford: that "it's all good, and we're all in this together" feeling. Messina, who moved from Northern California to Fort Worth in the early 1990s to work for an international investment firm, had been reluctant to leave his first and only Texas employment for Stanford. But he liked what Stanford was selling: a place where you could "bring a $20 million dollar experience to a $2 million client." The wealth manager's client base, a group of some 100 retirees, airline pilots, corporate execs and business owners assembled over 16 years, had become disenchanted with their cold, faceless investment house, which was the key reason he moved to Stanford.
"[My clients] were putting a lot of pressure on us to find something that was more about them," Messina says. That's precisely what Stanford was offering. And his customers "were really, really treated well," he adds. "It wasn't about perks; it was about Stanford treating their clients like a big wire house treats their investment banking clients."
There was an attitude the firm promoted that may have enabled even sophisticated investors to get sucker-punched: that the firm's owner, employees and clients were all one great big family. "That's how the clients felt about us," Messina says, "and that's how we felt about them."
Messina had been spoon-fed the Stanford story, which was the tale of a humble yet scrappy family from Nowhere, Texas, who knew the value of hard work and who turned a few bucks into a fortune. And when everyone is making money and lots of it, there's nothing suspicious about the boss cozying up to the island government where his offshore bank is headquartered.
Which brings us back to the Arizona desert in January, where Stanford and his acolytes stood at a hotel lectern and sang hymns of prosperity in the face of despair. And the disciples were comforted for the second time in recent weeks. They broke for lunch, retreating to the courtyard for a lavish buffet.
Messina recalls that afternoon with great clarity: Those from the Dallas office sat at their table, eating and chatting. They noticed Stanford standing alone, a plate of food in his hand. He scanned the group; Messina thought at the time he was scanning the room for the most interesting table, some lackeys with whom he could shoot the shit. "It looked like, 'All right, this guy really wants to connect with his people,'" Messina says.
So some in the Dallas office motioned him over. Because, see, they still had questions. And Stanford had answers. Said the bank wasn't losing money. Said he'd gone short on oil in the summer and long on the dollar in the winter. Said a bunch of stuff that didn't seem to mean much. But these Dallas wealth managers were fine with it. For a few more weeks, anyway. It wasn't until February 10 that Messina and his colleagues knew something was up: On that day, for the first time in the firm's history, Stanford stopped allowing early withdrawals. Clients couldn't get to their money.
One week later, federal agents raided Stanford's gold-plated Houston offices, and the Securities and Exchange Commission arrived in Dallas federal court accusing him of "orchestrating a fraudulent, multibillion-dollar investment scheme centering on an $8 billion CD program." The government froze all of Stanford's clients' assets; the SEC had 'em a countrified Bernie Madoff...and a guy with a "Sir" in his name, no less.
That's why, for the last two months, Messina's gone from investing his clients' money to trying to liberate it from the federal government. He is working with Dallas attorney Larry Friedman to retrieve their assets, and each day, Messina speaks either over the phone or via e-mail with his clients about where that money might have gone and how they might one day get at least some of it back. It's beyond any kind of worst-case scenario Messina could have ever imagined.
Betrayed. That's how he feels now. On his clients' behalf. And on his own.
When he looks back on that day in Arizona, he sees Stanford differently now—as someone who knew what was going down but was forced to keep it to himself. "He wasn't a man trying to connect with the people," Messina says. "He was a man alone."
Well, not quite alone. Today, Stanford; Laura Pendergest-Holt, the company's chief investment officer; and James Davis, the firm's chief financial officer, face accusations that claim they swindled investors out of $8 billion in a massive Ponzi scheme run out of Houston, South Florida and the Caribbean, taking money for supposed certificates of deposit and then simply paying off old customers with the new cash. The question remains why it took regulators so long to catch on, especially with several employees crying foul for years.
The fallout has been devastating. More than 300 Stanford employees in Texas have lost jobs, thousands of investors have had accounts frozen and about 30,000 worldwide have lost a total of $8 billion in life savings to the giant house of cards. And each allegation has dealt another body blow to America's already teetering confidence in government safeguards and the economy.
Even more than Bernie Madoff's tale, Allen Stanford's rise and fall is the story of the past decade in America, where greed mixed with cynical politics birthed a perfect storm for accused hucksters such as Stanford to bring the global economy to its knees. And as Stanford's story shows, the warning signs were there. They were simply ignored.
When the elevator doors open to the posh Stanford offices in Miami, the wealth and vision once synonymous with the fallen firm are glaringly obvious.
Well-worn, brass-studded leather couches rest on rich Oriental rugs, conjuring images of an old-money British banker in his study. Leather-bound volumes and yellowed globes line polished mahogany bookshelves next to huge impressionist oil paintings.
For a time, these three floors seemed like the center of a new investment empire built by a man who did everything in his power to change his origins.
Robert Allen Stanford was born in 1950 in Mexia, an oil boomtown on the plains of central Texas about 85 miles south of Dallas.
He lived in Mexia until the fourth grade, when his parents separated and he moved with his mother to Fort Worth. But those who remember him from that young age say that even then, he was famous for trying to make a buck.
"He was always known as an entrepreneur," says Bob Wright, editor of the Mexia Daily News and a family acquaintance. "He liked to make money, and he always seemed to have a few things going."
In high school, Stanford played football, and at Baylor University, he taught scuba lessons to make extra money. His roommate at Baylor, James Davis, became a lifelong friend.
Stanford graduated from Baylor in 1974 with a business administration degree and joined his father in Mexia to help run the family insurance business. But Stanford had bigger plans.
"I couldn't stay in a small town and be content," Stanford told Forbes magazine last fall.
By the early 1980s, Stanford had persuaded his father to sell the insurance business and join him in Houston as a real estate speculator. Houston's market had crashed after the oil bubble burst, and the Stanfords began buying up distressed properties at bargain prices.
By the mid-'80s, Allen Stanford had set his sights beyond real estate. In December 1985, with a few million in start-up cash from his father, he established an offshore bank called Guardian International Bank in Montserrat, a small British territory in the Leeward Islands.
The bank earned licenses to manage international banking accounts and in five years grew to about $14 million in holdings. But by 1990, Stanford faced an Internal Revenue Service lawsuit accusing him of owing the government $420,000 in unpaid taxes—and at the same time, the British government successfully pressured the territory to toughen regulations on its banks. In 1991, Stanford withdrew his license in Montserrat and began looking for another Caribbean home.
He found it later that year in the tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, a country of about 85,000 in the middle of the Lesser Antilles. Stanford relocated to Antigua and split his company into the two central pieces that still exist today. The first, called Stanford International Bank, was housed in a hillside estate in the island's capital city of Saint John's. The other arm, called Stanford Group Company, was based in downtown Houston. He made his college roommate, James Davis, director and chief financial officer of both companies. Stanford, though, was the sole shareholder.
Stanford International Bank operated outside of direct U.S. scrutiny. The bank's certificates of deposit—which are similar to savings accounts, except that they are held for a preset period of time with a fixed interest—consistently returned more than most American deposits, with funds in the mid-'90s routinely bringing 15 percent interest.
Meanwhile, Stanford's Houston-based firm, Stanford Group Company, was a traditional Securities and Exchange Commission-regulated broker. It managed portfolios, traded stock and, quite prominently, sold CDs in Stanford's Antiguan bank to American investors.
About six years after moving his offshore bank to Antigua, Florida state records show, Allen Stanford brought his company to South Florida and made Miami the de facto heart of his new empire—midway between his Houston investment headquarters and the Antigua bank, and close to the wealthy Latin Americans to whom he catered. By the end of the '90s, his formula—pushing CDs in his offshore bank to U.S. and Latin American investors through his Houston- and Miami-based brokerages—was making the Texan a mint. And as Stanford grew richer in his island fiefdom, his eccentricities flowered like a tropical orchid.
He soon obtained Antiguan citizenship, persuaded the former British colony to bestow an honorary knighthood upon him, and then demanded he be addressed everywhere as "Sir Allen." He became an avid cricket fan and brought the sport to Antigua by sponsoring a lavish international tournament with an unheard-of $20 million prize for the winning team. It was during this time that the 6-foot-4-inch Texan began talking with a slight British accent. He told reporters—falsely, it turned out—he could trace his lineage back to the founder of Stanford University.
In October 2003, he found a suitable home to mirror this new image, paying $10.5 million for a massive, 57-bedroom mansion on the Coral Gables, Florida, waterfront built by the Wackenhut family, which owned a nationwide private security firm. He rechristened the estate—which was outfitted with turrets, grottoes, a pub and a throne-like toilet—Tyecliffe Castle.
Though he'd been married since 1974 to a Texas dental hygienist named Susan, Stanford began keeping mistresses around the Caribbean and Florida. According to court documents, he fathered six children with four women and paid around $200,000 a month in child support. One mistress, Louise Sage, lived in the Coral Gables manor with two of Stanford's children.
In the late '90s and '00s, the Stanford Group became a prominent player in South Florida sports and charities. Stanford, of course, didn't forget his home state—the company donated a $30,000 piece of medical equipment to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas and also sponsored the Houston Polo Club's Open Invitational in 2005.
By 2007, just 16 years after opening as a small bank on a tiny island, Stanford's enterprises seemed to have amassed a spectacular amount of wealth. The bank in Antigua counted 30,000 customers in 131 countries with more than $8 billion in investments. The Houston-based brokerage managed 35,000 accounts worth more than $50 billion. Forbes estimated Allen Stanford's personal worth at $2 billion, and he purchased an airline and a number of restaurants in Antigua.
Court filings spell out the Miami lifestyle that came with all the wealth: $75,000 Christmas gifts for his children by Louise Sage, regularly chartered $100,000 yachts, a $100 million fleet of personal jets, $25,000 monthly payments on his mansion.
In his more public dealings, Stanford's thin veneer of supposed old-money aristocracy always seemed moments away from cracking. During a now-infamous exchange on live television in late 2008, a sycophantic CNBC reporter asked him: "So, is it fun being a billionaire?"
Sir Allen shifted uncomfortably in his seat, chuckled awkwardly and cleared his throat. "Hmm, uh, yes," he said, eyes darting. "Yes, I'd have to say it is fun."
When investment broker Charles Hazlett went to work for the Stanford Group Company in Miami in 2002, the firm was unlike any other place he had ever worked. Hazlett had more than 15 years' experience managing portfolios for investors in Latin America and the Caribbean when he jumped ship from Prudential Securities to the Stanford Group Company, an up-and-coming firm in downtown Miami, lured by up to $400,000 in bonuses, a $180,000 salary and a plush waterfront office.
At weekly staff meetings, there was more talk about offshore banking deposits than the fluctuations of the stock market. In fact, at Stanford Group, hardly anyone talked about Wall Street.
There were bizarre rituals, such as the heraldic gold eagle that the company plastered on nearly every surface (the doors, the elevators, even the toilet seats) and sent employees home for forgetting to wear on their lapel.
And Hazlett couldn't figure out what was going on with those certificates of deposit in the company's offshore bank—the managers were relentless about those CDs, asking how many had he sold that week. Nothing else seemed to matter.
As Hazlett discovered in his nine months at Stanford, these were all reflections of the firm's quirky founder. In Antigua, where he had been knighted, Stanford attained an almost godlike status. He owned a daily newspaper and the Bank of Antigua, and he sat on the board regulating the island's banks—a board he also helped to create.
Hazlett was successful, selling more than $10 million in CDs to the firm's offshore bank, which made him one of the company's top producers and earned him a $100,000 BMW as a bonus.
But then he started asking questions. Why were the CDs performing so well? What was the explanation for the incredible returns? And where were the deposits invested? The more Hazlett pressed his managers for an explanation, the more he was stonewalled.
He finally maneuvered his way into a meeting with Laura Pendergest (now married and known as Pendergest-Holt), the company's chief investment officer. His biggest client, a Curaçao native with a $5 million stake, was going to pull out his cash unless she told Hazlett how the deposits were being invested.
According to Hazlett, she refused to give him any answers, saying, "It's proprietary information." She asked him to control his client. Hazlett said when he told Pendergest-Holt he wanted answers himself, she burst into tears and left the room.
Fifteen minutes later, the company's No. 2 executive, James Davis, phoned Hazlett from Memphis. "Do you believe in God?" Davis asked in a dry drawl, his voice rising with passion. "Do you fear God, Chuck?"
God? Hazlett thought. Where the hell am I?
In January 2003, one year after he started for the firm, Hazlett packed a cardboard box inside his apartment-size office. He had just quit, after yet again demanding a meeting with top officials to talk about how the CDs performed so well.
Hazlett's customer in Curaçao had pulled out his investment one month earlier, but Hazlett stuck around longer, hoping his bizarre conversations with Pendergest-Holt and Davis somehow had been an aberration.
Now he believed the worst. He had no proof of what exactly Sir Allen was up to, but Hazlett wanted no part of it. He called his lawyer.
A few weeks later, the broker and his former company met in a Boca Raton arbitration court run by what is now called the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry group sanctioned by the SEC. Hazlett spelled out his experience: Brokers were heavily pressured to sell offshore CDs and were stonewalled when they tried to find out where the CDs were being invested.
Repeated calls to the SEC's press office seeking comment for this story were not returned.
"I thought, at least I put my story out there and someone on the regulatory side is going to realize these are bad guys," Hazlett recalls today. "Because I know I'm not the only one that had this experience."
Hazlett lost his case and never again heard from the SEC, even though he was right—he wasn't the only Stanford employee complaining to regulators.
In fact, even as Stanford's business holdings and personal wealth grew exponentially, his brushes with legal and regulatory authorities were frequent, and the warning signs that something was amiss were many.
In 1999, a DEA investigation found that members of the vicious Juárez Cartel in Mexico had deposited more than $3 million in Stanford's bank to launder drug money. Stanford quickly surrendered the cartel's money to the DEA and earned praise from the agency for his quick action. But later that year, federal regulators placed Antigua on a blacklist of nations suspected of money laundering and fraud.
That same year, the Clinton administration introduced a bill to crack down on overseas banks favored by gambling rings, drug militias and terrorists. Two months later, according to a study by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Stanford hired a powerhouse lobbying group to fight the bill and began donating to both major parties. He handed out $208,000 to Republican campaign committees and $145,000 to Democrats that year. Among his biggest recipients were powerful Texas lawmakers, including House Democratic Caucus Chair Martin Frost from Dallas. The bill, despite passing a House committee 31-1 with strong Treasury Department backing, was allowed to die in a Senate committee.
In 2002, as Congress took up a bill called the Financial Services Antifraud Network Act, which would have strengthened U.S. regulators, Stanford upped his lobbying. That year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—a nonprofit group that monitors campaign money—Stanford's company gave $800,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The anti-money-laundering bill died in a Senate committee, but its same provisions later found their way into the Patriot Act. Some experts say, however, it would be foolish to think Stanford expected nothing for his money. "Stanford wouldn't pump that much money into a hole that doesn't deliver something in return," says Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
In all, Stanford spent nearly $5 million lobbying Congress between 1999 and 2008 and dished out $2.4 million to federal candidates. He also sponsored dozens of free "fact-finding" trips to Antigua and other Caribbean islands for politicians and their staffs on his fleet of jets. Records of the trips show that former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay flew 11 times on Stanford's jets, according to The Dallas Morning News. Republican Congressman Pete Sessions from Dallas, according to OpenSecrets.com, received $41,375 in campaign contributions from the Stanford Financial Group's PAC, and TheHill.com reports that he traveled twice to Antigua to attend meetings of the Inter-American Economic Council, a nonprofit with close ties to Stanford.
In the meantime, the red flags kept popping up. In March 2003, just months after Hazlett left Stanford, another employee—a Houston-based broker named Leyla Basagoitia—made even stronger accusations in Texas. In her filings, Basagoitia said the company was "engaged in a Ponzi scheme to defraud its clients" and the company forced her to invest her clients' money in its Antiguan CDs even though she believed them to be "risky in nature and unsuitable."
Like Hazlett's, Basagoitia's claims were summarily dismissed, and both brokers were left to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay and attorney's fees to Stanford. Neither ever heard from the SEC regarding their accusations. And if their voices weren't loud enough for regulators, another Miami employee took his suspicions to court in 2006 and laid out in even greater detail Sir Allen's alleged schemes.
Lawrence De Maria, a former business journalist for The New York Times and Forbes, was hired by Stanford in 2003 to run the company's internal magazine out of the Miami office. He was fired three years later, and soon thereafter, he claimed in court that the company kicked him out for asking too many questions about its investment strategy.
"And I could never get an answer," De Maria said in court, explaining that James Davis told him the firm got great returns by using better computer programs and analysts than anyone else in the business.
In the filings, De Maria said he told his immediate boss in 2004 he suspected the firm was laundering South American drug money, lying to investors, running a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and paying Antiguan and American politicians to look the other way. The company settled De Maria's case almost immediately after his lawyers got a court order that would have forced Allen Stanford to testify.
De Maria, who now writes novels in Naples, declined through his lawyer to discuss the case because of the settlement.
The regulatory board that heard Hazlett's and Basagoitia's testimony is sanctioned directly by the SEC, and De Maria publicly made his claims in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Yet the wing of the government charged with rooting out bank and investment fraud did not respond to the concerns piling up around Stanford's operations.
The SEC did open an investigation into Stanford's company in 2006 but dropped the inquiry at the request of another agency that hasn't yet been named, according to several sources. Representative Dennis Kucinich from Ohio, among others in Congress, has demanded an explanation from the regulators about why the case was dropped. In 2007, regulators found the company was violating rules about how much capital it needed to keep on hand, so they levied a fine that amounted to a pittance—$20,000. That same year, the company paid another minuscule fine—$10,000—for "misleading" information about its CDs.
The last, and perhaps most incredible, public warning that Stanford Group was in trouble came only three months ago from a low-key Venezuelan investment analyst named Alex Dalmady.
A thin, 48-year-old Caracas native, Dalmady grew up doing balance sheets for his dad, who worked for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse. He spent most of his adult life in the Venezuelan capital, where he analyzed the small national stock exchange in a subscription newsletter he published.
Six years ago, he moved with his family to Weston, Florida, after getting American residency. Last fall, a friend in Venezuela phoned him after the Madoff scandal and the global banking crisis began, asking him to take a look at his investments.
"Five minutes after I looked at Stanford...I said, 'This just doesn't smell right,'" Dalmady said in late February. "I said, 'Get your money out. Now.'"
"It wasn't just the balance sheets; there's one fishy thing after another," he said. "I looked up their board of directors, and I see it's Stanford, his dad and some other old guy in Mexia. I looked up his address, and it was on this cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere."
After just a few weeks of reading up on the company, he was so certain Stanford was a fraud that this past December, he called a Caracas business paper and asked if they would publish a story laying out his suspicions. The editor agreed. In January, Dalmady's bylined piece ran in two Venezuelan newspapers and on their Web sites.
"I expected some kind of outrage," Dalmady says. "Instead, they send us this beautiful collection of PR bullshit. And then it's absolute silence, which was the final confirmation for me. Stanford was running a Ponzi."
According to the 25-page SEC complaint filed in a Dallas federal court, which formally charged Stanford, Davis and Pendergest-Holt with orchestrating an $8 billion "massive Ponzi scheme," Stanford's company claimed its investments lost only 1.3 percent in 2008—a year when the S&P 500 dropped 39 percent. Stanford and Davis kept 90 percent of the company's supposed $8 billion in investments in a "black box" shielded from outside scrutiny. In essence, the regulators charge, Stanford never invested any of that money except in a few land deals and pet projects. The rest he used for himself and to pay interest on the older investments.
In the weeks since the SEC brought charges against Allen Stanford and his associates, the fallout has been monumental.
Besides all the people who lost their jobs, tens of thousands of investors have had their accounts frozen until the case is resolved. The 30,000 investors worldwide who sank money into Stanford International Bank CDs, meanwhile, have lost life savings, retirement funds and charitable endowments—probably forever.
Antigua has been thrown into chaos. Stanford was the island's second-largest employer, and hundreds have gone unemployed for the past few weeks. Panicked residents have made a run on the island's banks and government financial centers since the SEC complaint was filed.
Three weeks after the company was charged with massive fraud and Laura Pendergest-Holt was hit with felony criminal charges for allegedly lying to regulators, police found Allen Stanford hiding in one of his girlfriends' homes in rural Virginia. He had tried to pay a private pilot to fly him to Antigua, but his credit cards had already been frozen. He surrendered his passport and remains free today. On April 6, he tearfully told ABC News that he expected to be indicted by a federal grand jury within two weeks, but called allegations that he was running a Ponzi scheme "baloney."
His lawyer, well-known Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin offered a less emotional defense.
"From what I've been able to figure out, this is not a Ponzi scheme, it is not toxic assets, and it is not toxic loans," DeGuerin told Reuters. "There were hard assets for all the investments. And then SEC came in like gangbusters and has just incinerated the companies and caused a panic."
But Stanford may find his legal options narrowing. James Davis has hired Dallas criminal defense attorney David Finn, who says his client "accepts full responsibility for his actions" and is "actively cooperating" with the government. "There is a basic rule in fraud cases: follow the money," Finn says. "I think when the investigators and the prosecutors follow the money, it will lead them directly to Sir Allen."
Government inquiries have begun into how the SEC and other regulators could miss such a gargantuan fraud for so long. A new anti-money-laundering bill to stiffen regulations on offshore banks has been introduced in the Senate. And state attorneys general across the nation announced last month an initiative to crack down on financial fraud.
But some experts say all of those measures won't prevent the next Madoff or Stanford from preying on Americans again.
One problem, says Phillip Phan, a business professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied large-scale frauds, is that regulators are usually lawyers and accountants trained to look for problems only in companies' balance sheets. If SEC agents had been more attuned to the most basic problems at Stanford, such as a board of directors with 85-year-old Mexia cattle ranchers at the top, the firm might never have built such a large scheme.
"We really should look at regulation more like intelligence gathering," Phan says. "We should be trying to spot all warning signs out there, in the same way the CIA employs linguists and sociologists and all the specialties. There's so much information out there beyond the balance sheets."
Two weeks ago, Lawrence Messina opened a new office in Preston Center, but he's hardly put the Stanford experience behind him; indeed, it's quite the opposite. At least 10 times a week he's on the phone with attorney Larry Friedman, who's among the hundreds of attorneys trying to force the government to let go of investors' assets, which were frozen when the U.S. District Judge David Godbey put Stanford's Antigua-based bank into receivership following the feds' February raid.
Friedman represents some 150 investors who can't touch a cent of their assets while Dallas receiver Ralph Janvey combs through their accounts, trying to discern how much of their money was raised via Stanford-related investments. Time is of the essence for many of these former investors, who now can't pay their bills and are in danger of losing their homes while the government ties up their money without allowing for any relief whatsoever.
Which is why Friedman says he was quick to the courthouse: Two days after the feds filed their case against Stanford, Friedman was at the Dallas federal courthouse on behalf of a client, attempting to wrest his money away from the government.
So far, no luck—though on Monday, attorneys representing investors were in federal appeals court in New Orleans demanding that Godbey let go of the purse strings. Says Friedman, this could be "a lengthy, arduous process [that] could take many months or even years."
But Friedman has Messina on his side, which, the attorney says, is among the reasons he has so many clients. "Lawrence really brought me up to speed quickly," he says. The men were introduced by a mutual acquaintance shortly after the SEC filed its complaint.
"When I filed my first suit on behalf of one of Stanford's victims, my name spread like wildfire," he says. "And somebody introduced Lawrence to me as one of the best and brightest down there. So when people called to interview me as their attorney, I knew the company. I could talk the talk."
Messina has spent the last several weeks navigating Friedman "through the Stanford maze," as the attorney puts it, either by introducing him to other former Stanford wealth managers or by explaining to him where the money was supposed to go and how it was supposed to grow. The attorney has nothing but the kindest things to say about Messina: He calls him "a good guy," "honest," "reliable." Messina says he remains in contact with 100 of his clients on a daily basis. He insists, no, he doesn't feel guilty about his involvement in their plight. But he does feel responsible.
"We are the ones who are left cleaning up the mess, and we didn't make the mess," he says. "All of our clients have accepted the fact that we will fight the battle, and we are going to see where we can recover assets and where we can collect. The clients accept that. But what they can't accept is when they are going to get their money."
Robert Wilonsky, Kimberly Thorpe and Craig Malisow contributed to this story.