NEW YORK – Dozens of angry customers turned up at the main branch of the Bank of Antigua trying to get their money back after the United States federal government said R. Allen Stanford's investment businesses were too good to be true, and shut his companies down on Tuesday.
"Open the door and give us our money," Liston Lewis, a 45-year-old construction worker said to one of the guards. "Even if it takes until 12 o'clock give us our money."
Two months after Bernard Madoff was accused of running the largest investment fraud in history, Securities and Exchange Commission officials raided the offices of Stanford, a Texas billionaire, and froze the assets of three companies he controls, saying he perpetrated an $8 billion investment fraud.
Stanford was accused in civil charges of lying about the safety of investments he sold as "certificates of deposit" and promised unrealistically high rates of return. Regulators also said he faked historical data about other investments which he then used to lure in more investors for the CD products.
The fraud's operations allegedly reached as far as the tiny Caribbean island of Antigua, where Stanford was knighted in 2006 and helped sponsor high-stakes cricket matches. As news of the charges broke Tuesday afternoon, panicked residents of Antigua swarmed a second bank controlled by Stanford hoping to take their money out, only to be turned away by guards. That bank was not part of the complaint released Tuesday.
Stanford's whereabouts were not immediately known. Brian Bertsch, a spokesman for Stanford, referred all questions to the SEC. Stephen Webster, an SEC attorney, said the agency is actively trying to find Stanford and didn't know whether he had been served with court papers.
Stanford owns a home in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and operates his businesses from Houston and Antigua.
The SEC, which has come under heavy criticism for missing early warning signs of Madoff's alleged fraud scheme, said Stanford used a tight circle of family and friends to operate a network through an Antigua-based company to push the investments on buyers, all the while promising "improbable and unsubstantiated high interest rates."
In addition to Stanford himself, the civil lawsuit filed in federal court in Dallas names as defendants James Davis, the chief financial officer of Stanford International Bank, an Antigua-based company that was one of the three whose assets were frozen, as well as Laura Pendergest-Holt, the chief investment officer of Stanford Financial Group, a Houston-based financial advisory firm.
While not named in the SEC's civil complaint, regulators said Stanford was aided in running the Antigua-based operation by his father, who lives in Mexia, Texas, and another Mexia resident with a background in cattle ranching and car sales. Davis, who was named in the lawsuit, was Stanford's college roommate.
In Dallas, district court judge Reed O'Connor appointed a receiver to handle the frozen assets. A receiver was also appointed in the Madoff case to oversee the liquidation of that firm and to help investors recoup money. Madoff, who is under house arrest in his Manhattan apartment, is accused of orchestrating a giant $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
James Dunlap, an Atlanta-based securities lawyer, said Stanford customers he has been advising have been told they can't get their money out of the firm, with some being told there is an indefinite hold on withdrawals.
Dunlap said his firm is still trying to understand the scope of the alleged fraud and how to pursue remedies for his clients, which include customers in the United States, Latin America and Australia.
"At this point I can't say where the money is," Dunlap said.
Stanford, 58, is one of the most prominent businessmen in the Caribbean, with investment advisers around the world helping him grow a personal fortune estimated at $2.2 billion by Forbes magazine.
Last year Stanford shook up the staid world of professional cricket by bankrolling the purse in a $20 million winner-take-all match in Antigua between England and a West Indies select team. The England and Wales Cricket Board said it has suspended negotiations for a new sponsorship deal with Stanford amid the allegations.