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Supreme Court allows Stanford Ponzi scheme suits

Wednesday, 26 Feb 2014 | 2:19 PM ET
Indicted financier R. Allen Stanford, accused of leading a $7 billion investment fraud scheme, arrives at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, March 6, 2012.
Aaron M. Sprecher | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Indicted financier R. Allen Stanford, accused of leading a $7 billion investment fraud scheme, arrives at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, March 6, 2012.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the victims of former Texas tycoon R. Allen Stanford's massive Ponzi scheme can go forward with class-action lawsuits against the law firms and investment companies that allegedly aided the fraud.

The decision is a loss for firms that claimed federal securities law insulated them from state class-action lawsuits and sought to have the cases thrown out.

Federal law says class-action suits related to securities fraud cannot be filed under state law, as these suits were. But a federal appeals court said these could move forward because the main part of the fraud involved certificates of deposit, not stocks and other securities.

The high court agreed in a 7-2 decision.

(Read more: Madoff victim fund receives over 9,000 claims, extends deadline)

Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison after being convicted of bilking investors in a scheme that involved the sale of fraudulent certificates of deposits from the Stanford International Bank. They supposedly were backed by safe investments in securities issued by governments, multinational companies and international banks, but those investments did not exist.

Former investors hoped to win damages from the firms that worked with Stanford, but could not bring those claims under federal law. So they filed suit under state law in Louisiana and Texas. But the defendants claimed those suits are blocked by the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act, a federal law aimed at limiting private lawsuits that allege securities fraud.

Allen Stanford: The Dark Knight
A swashbuckling Texan is knighted and builds a fraudulent empire in Antigua by running an international Ponzi scheme that steals billions from his investors.

A federal judge initially threw the lawsuits out, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said they could move forward. The appeals court found that the investment scheme is not covered by securities law because the main part of the fraud involved the certificates of deposit, not stocks or other securities.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that the law does not preclude the class-action lawsuits because the fraud at the center of the scheme does not involve a "covered security." Breyer said the fraud "bears so remote a connection to the national securities market that no person actually believed he was taking an ownership position in that market."

(Read more: Second Madoff aide testifies at trial, denies knowledge of fraud)

About an hour after Breyer read a summary of his opinion, a protester stood up near the back of the courtroom and called on the justices to overturn their 2010 ruling in Citizens United that freed corporations and labor unions from some limits on campaign spending. The court later identified the protester as Noah Newkirk of Los Angeles and said he was charged with violating a federal law prohibiting anyone from making a "harangue or oration" at the Supreme Court.

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito dissented in the Stanford case, warning that the majority opinion would lead to an explosion of state class-action lawsuits and frustrate the intent of securities laws designed to protect those who advise investors.

"The state-law litigation will drive up legal costs for market participants and the secondary actors, such as lawyers, accountants, brokers and advisers, who seek to rely on the stability that results from a national securities market regulated by federal law," Kennedy said in dissent.

The Obama administration had also argued against allowing the cases to move forward, saying it could interfere with the Securities and Exchange Commission's ability to go after fraud and could weaken investor confidence.

But Breyer said the government failed to show any example of past SEC enforcement actions that would have been prevented by the court's decision. He pointed to the government's successful prosecution of Stanford as proof that similar frauds will continue to be within the reach of federal authorities.

Prosecutors say Stanford persuaded investors to buy certificates of deposit from his bank on the Caribbean island of Antigua. He then used the money to fund a string of failed businesses, bribe regulators and pay for his lavish lifestyle.

Many victims have been disappointed so far that they have recovered only a pittance of their initial investments during a recovery process that has dragged on for more than five years. A court-appointed receiver began distributing part of $55 million in recovered assets to investors last year, just a tiny fraction of what they lost.

The receiver and other court-appointed liquidators have recovered more than $500 million of Stanford's remaining assets so far, but that amount is reduced by millions in attorney fees, expenses and other costs.

—By The Associated Press