Five years after learning they were victims of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme, investors in the Stanford Financial Group say they feel abandoned, even though their losses rival those in the Madoff scam that was revealed two months earlier.
Unlike the Madoff case, in which a court-appointed trustee has said he is well on his way to recovering all of the investors' principal—estimated at $17.5 billion—Stanford victims have recovered less than one penny on the dollar since the Securities and Exchange Commission sued the firm and a court placed it in receivership on Feb. 17, 2009.
"I do have to say the Stanford victims do feel like the stepchildren in the Ponzi world," said Angela Shaw Kogutt, who estimates her family lost $4.5 million in the scam. Shaw heads the Stanford Victims Coalition, which has been trying for years to drum up support in Washington.
Some 28,000 investors—10 times the number of direct investors in the Madoff case—bought certificates of deposit from Stanford International Bank in Antigua, which was owned by Texas financier R. Allen Stanford. Stanford's U.S. sales force had promised the investors—many of them retired oil workers—that the CDs were at least as safe as instruments from a U.S. bank. But a jury later found most of the clients' money financed Stanford's lavish lifestyle instead of the high-grade securities and real estate it was supposed to.
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Stanford, who portrayed himself as a self-made billionaire, exuded the American Dream. He claimed to have built his global financial empire from a family insurance business in his rural hometown of Mexia, Texas. A generous contributor to politicians of all stripes, Stanford effectively took over the financial sector in Antigua while nurturing rumors of his unique connections.
But asked directly by CNBC in 2009 about suggestions he was a government informant, Stanford demurred.
"You talkin' about the CIA?" he asked. "I'm not gonna talk about that."
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the scandal, Dallas attorney Ralph Janvey, appointed by a federal judge to head the receivership and round up assets for the victims, said he feels the victims' pain.
"Even though my team and I have worked hard and made much progress over the last five years, the process of unwinding the fraud and the pace of recovering money have been frustratingly slow," Janvey wrote in an open letter to "all those affected by the Stanford fraud."
In the Stanford case, progress is relative.
Last April, Janvey won court approval to begin distributing $55 million to some investors. In the letter, he said $25 million has already been distributed, another $5.5 million could be paid this month and another $18 million in Stanford assets from Canada could be distributed this year as well.
But the rest of the investors' money was either spent by Stanford or is tied up in litigation. Janvey said some $200 million in assets is in Swiss banks and tied up in the criminal forfeiture process. He has sued dozens of people and institutions that allegedly profited from the Ponzi scheme, seeking more than $680 million. The prospects for recovering anything close to that amount, however, are unclear.
"Asset recovery litigation is difficult, lengthy and expensive," Janvey wrote. "The defendants, many of whom have significant resources, are defending the cases aggressively, and many of the favorable rulings in these cases have already been appealed."
Further complicating matters, victims allege: the Justice Department has not been as aggressive in the Stanford case as it has been in the Madoff case.