Cricket's tarnished tycoon is left 'living on charity'

In an exclusive interview with <i>The Independent</i>, Allen Stanford's fiancée talks about life under siege with the billionaire fighting fraud charges
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the FBI finally caught up with Allen Stanford, the cricket-loving billionaire, to serve fraud charges on him, they found the larger-than-life Texan in the incongruous surroundings of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a sleepy commuter town close to the nation's capital. He had taken refuge at the family home of his 30-year-old fiancée, Andrea Stoelker, a modest town house that was a far cry from the mansions and castles of his privileged life further south.

It is two months now since those charges were made by the finance industry's regulator, accusing Mr Stanford of running an $8bn pyramid scheme out of a Caribbean tax haven – sensational allegations that, at a stroke, brought down a man who had built an international financial empire and controversially bankrolled English cricket.

Even more sinister money-laundering and other fraud accusations have been flying ever since, and Mr Stanford fully expects criminal charges any day, but he is back out in public, denying everything and fighting to clear his name. Today, his battle is joined by Ms Stoelker, who describes a couple under siege, unable to gain access to any money or even to get back into their homes to retrieve their clothes.

"We're lucky to be living on the charity of my family at the moment, but it has been overwhelming," Ms Stoelker told The Independent, in her first public comments since her fiancé's downfall. "We are very blessed to have a lot of people around us who are supportive, and some great former employees who are standing by him, but it is difficult to get up some mornings."

Ms Stoelker, 29 years Mr Stanford's junior, is herself a former employee at Stanford Group, and was put in charge of last year's ill-fated Twenty20 tournament between the England and West Indian cricket teams. She was drawn into the media maelstrom that followed that event and the pictures of Mr Stanford cavorting with the wives and girlfriends of the England team, but that was nothing compared with the media scrum that descended on Fredericksburg in February and camped outside the family town house, with its American flag fluttering on the porch. "They even went through our bins," she says.

She has indeed had to endure open season on her fiancé's private life, including a blizzard of reports about his past philandering and infidelities and about the six children he has fathered by various women. All the children have been supportive of their father during the past few months, Ms Stoelker said. And echoing her fiancé, she added: "Any time you suffer anything like this, you see who your real friends are."

The camera crews have gone now, and Mr Stanford is spending more time in Houston, where he is launching his defence, beginning with a string of interviews with US networks this week. The outlines of that defence are becoming clearer. In his own words: "If anything that was going on wasn't correct, I didn't know about it."

The Securities and Exchange Commission accuses Mr Stanford and two of his closest lieutenants of repeatedly lying to investors who put money into certificates of deposit with his Antigua-based Stanford International Bank. The profits these investments purported to return were simply too good to be true, and the money was going not into the investments that Stanford claimed but rather into property and other business ventures connected with him personally. Investors were paid back not with real investment profits but with money coming in from elsewhere – a classic pyramid scheme – the legal filings allege. The SEC's investigation turned up more details even in the days after the first lawsuit was handed to Mr Stanford, and a revised complaint includes the more serious allegation that he was personally given a secret $1.6bn loan this year, contrary to any of the company's public statements about what it was doing. (He says it was legitimate money that went via him into other investments for the firm.)

His right-hand man for three decades, his college room-mate Jim Davis, is also named in the suit, as is Stanford Group's chief investment officer, Laura Prendergast-Holt. So far, she is the only person charged with a criminal offence, the only person photographed in handcuffs, accused of obstructing justice by lying to investigators.

The publication of the SEC's allegations in February prompted a run on the bank in Antigua, where Mr Stanford is the island's biggest private-sector employer and a powerful figure in the island's politics. The government has seized the bank and is trying to parcel out the rest of his holdings there. Similar actions have been taken by governments across Latin America, where the Stanford Group's tentacles were spread. In the UK, that $100m investment in English cricket is history.

And in the US, a banking and stockbroking business that Mr Stanford had claimed managed $50bn for its clients has been shut down and its employees laid off. It was a business that could trace its roots back to the Great Depression and the insurance firm founded by Mr Stanford's grandfather in the little city of Mexia, Texas, but it was the latest scion's banking ventures in the offshore financial centres of Montserrat and later Antigua that proved most lucrative. The riches Mr Stanford found there allowed him to build a vast business managing money for thousands of onshore Americans, driven by a network of salespeople who could win lottery-style bonuses on top of fat commissions by persuading people to invest. In its last years, courting legitimacy, Mr Stanford hitched the group's name to a string of sports stars, sponsoring golfer V J Singh and Newcastle United captain Michael Owen, and he took a higher and higher profile, revelling in his status as a billionaire.

Mr Stanford never quite puts it in these terms, but he is grieving for his loss. Filmed last month by an ABC television crew outside a Houston restaurant, after what had clearly been a few drinks, he became tearful when talking about the employees who had been relying on him, and threatened to punch the reporter if he repeated money-laundering suggestions. He became emotional again at points in his more formal interviews this week. In all of them, he proudly pointed to his lapel badge in the shape of an eagle, the Stanford Group logo, and said the business had been stolen from him by the "Gestapo tactics" of the US justice system.

"It's unbelievably horrific," he told CNBC television this week. "I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I was one of the wealthiest men in the world and enjoyed a lifestyle – not extravagant – that only a handful of people on this planet have ever and will ever experience.

"I've sat back and I've taken the hardest thing that I've ever had to deal with in my life. It's been a debilitating nightmare, and I'm barely back to being myself now. But for the clients, the employees, my children, my fiancée and others who I care deeply about in my family, I am going to fight this thing with everything in my body."

The villain in Mr Stanford's defence, it seems certain, is going to be Jim Davis. In what could turn out to be one of the business world's great betrayals, Mr Davis is believed to have been co-operating with the US authorities since the SEC's charges were first laid, and Mr Stanford is fully expecting a plea deal in which Mr Davis agrees to testify against his long-time friend.

The Stoelker family has also come out swinging for Mr Stanford. Andrea Stoelker's mother, Kathy, emailed a number of former employees last week with a full-throated defence of her future son-in-law and predicted he would be vindicated. "Allen's guilt is that of trusting Jim Davis to run the Financial Service Division," she wrote. "This awareness has been devastating to Allen as their friendship began when they were college room-mates and he truly trusted this 'evil' man."

A lawyer for Mr Davis dismissed the letter as "pathetic" and said that Mr Stanford's story was no more believable than the existence of the tooth fairy. It promises to be a colourful battle ahead. That is, if Mr Stanford can afford the multimillion-dollar defence he wants. His lawyers petitioned the Texan courts this week to be allowed access to $10m from his empire to fund their work. In his round of interviews, Mr Stanford had opened up his wallet and displayed a slew of credit cards, all of which he said are now useless.

The Stanford home in St Croix in the US Virgin Islands has been chained shut by the receivers of his businesses, and neither Mr Stanford nor Ms Stoelker has been allowed back. "I have been shocked and amazed at what the government has done and what they have taken from us and from other employees. If I didn't know for certain that we are in the US, I would say that this was Cuba or Venezuela."