Investors bilked in $7B scheme feel forgotten

AP News
Posted: Feb 17, 2012 5:43 PM
Investors bilked in $7B scheme feel forgotten

Sitting in the back of a courtroom where Texas tycoon R. Allen Stanford is being tried for fraud, retired IBM engineer Jim Eccles was eager to see the man accused of bilking thousands of investors in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Eccles, who lost his life savings, said he'd spent hours traveling on a bus for one reason.

"I wanted to see the guy that stole my money," the 76-year-old Austin resident said Friday, shortly before testimony resumed in the ongoing trial in Houston.

Three years have passed since Stanford's business empire was dismantled in the hope that his companies, bank accounts and lavish assets could pay back the more than 21,000 people that prosecutors said were victimized. Many lost their retirement savings or saw college tuition funds gutted.

But so far, they've received nothing.

The recovery process has been complicated by conflicts in securing Stanford's assets, which are scattered across several countries, and a legal fight over whether some investors are entitled to a special fund that protects customers of failed brokerage firms.

The delay has left investors feeling cheated and forgotten, with some worrying about being able to afford a doctor's visit or if they can get by on Social Security checks.

Eccles was among about 40 investors in the courtroom Friday who came from as far away as Florida to highlight their frustration. The investors _ most of them elderly and retired _ said they lost their life savings after buying certificates of deposit, or CDs, from Stanford's bank on the Caribbean island nation of Antigua. Stanford's trial began last month.

Prosecutors allege the CDs were the centerpiece of Stanford's 20-year fraud scheme. Stanford promised investors their money was being safely invested in stocks, bonds and other securities, but investigators say the money was actually used to fund the flamboyant financier's businesses and extravagant lifestyle filled with yachts and private jets.

Many investors feel lost and don't understand the intricacies of the recovery process, said Angela Shaw, who founded the Stanford Victims Coalition after she and her husband lost $2 million in the alleged scheme. She helped organize Friday's courtroom visit by investors.

"At some point along the way, a lot of them have lost hope," she said.

Before testimony resumed, the investors gathered around tables at the courthouse's cafeteria and swapped stories over coffee: how much money they lost, how they were enticed to buy the CDs, how they were reassured their investments were protected by insurance.

Paul Gallagher, from suburban Houston, said he lost $557,000 and now supports his 90-year-old mother-in-law, who lost $890,000. Gallagher, 64, said he still works as an engineering consultant and will "probably work forever now."

For investors like Kate Freeman who live outside the U.S., their frustration is magnified. In a telephone interview from her home in Antigua, the British retiree said they feel "totally left out in the cold" when it comes to getting updates on the recovery process. She runs the Stanford International Victims Group.

"I live on charity. For somebody that's never had to ask anyone for a penny, it's very demeaning," said Freeman, who is in her late 50s and lost $820,000.

Gallagher and other investors at the courthouse said they were upset by the "glacial speed" of the recovery process and noted that millions of dollars have been paid in fees and expenses related to the receiver's work.

As of the end of October, Ralph Janvey, the Dallas-based receiver, had collected nearly $217 million. Officials expect only about $500 million in assets will ultimately be recovered _ meaning investors would receive pennies on the dollar for their losses. More could be recouped through lawsuits, but that could take years.

But minus $102 million in fees and expenses for attorneys, accountants and consultants, the total recovered for investors currently sits at only $114.5 million.

Janvey has defended those costs. In court filings, he said the recovery process has been difficult because assets were scattered across dozens of countries and were part of more than 100 businesses owned by Stanford.

Also complicating the recovery process is an ongoing legal battle between Janvey and Antiguan Joint Liquidators to lay claim to many of the same assets.

Edward Davis Jr., one of the attorneys for the liquidators appointed by the Antiguan Court, said his clients are working to sell off the bank's assets, which include land on Antigua worth between $100 million and $200 million, and to bring liability claims against those who assisted Stanford in committing fraud.

Janvey has previously said those assets should come under his receivership.

The liquidators and the U.S. Justice Department have also been battling over control of more than $330 million of Stanford's accounts frozen in Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Davis said the liquidators are not looking to take over Janvey's estate recovery process and are willing to work with him. But in an email Friday, David Arlington, one of Janvey's attorneys, said the liquidators in Antigua "have been unwilling to agree to any resolution that does not give them effective control of the U.S. receivership and the assets already collected or frozen for distribution to the investor victims."

Investors have also sought compensation through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, or SIPC. The nonprofit, created by Congress and funded through mandatory fees on brokerage firms, works to return customers' cash, stocks and other securities when a brokerage firm closes due to bankruptcy or other financial difficulties.

Last year, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission ruled many of the Stanford investors should be compensated by SIPC, saying investors who bought CDs through the financier's U.S. brokerage arm were entitled to protection that would pay up to $500,000.

SIPC disagreed, and the SEC sued the group in December.

Stephen Harbeck, president and CEO of SIPC, said even though the brokerage firm sold the CDs to customers, the CDs were not held by the firm but by Stanford's bank in Antigua, which is not a member of the group.

"While the SEC thinks these people are victims, we agree with that. What they don't fit is the confines of the statutes that we administer," Harbeck said.

A hearing in the lawsuit is set for March 5 in Washington.

With all the legal and financial wrangling, it is easy to understand why the investors feel lost, said Shaw, founder of the victims' group.

"It's just like one punch after another," she said. "I don't' know if all the investors will outlast this time consuming procedure."


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