WRAPUP 1-Stanford exec to walk free after posting bail

HOUSTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Laura Pendergest-Holt, the first person arrested in the $8 billion Allen Stanford fraud investigation, can walk free once she posts $300,000 bond, a Houston judge ruled on Friday.

Pendergest-Holt, the 35-year-old chief investment officer for the Stanford Financial Group who was arrested by the FBI on Thursday, spent the night in a Houston detention center, then faced U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy in court.

U.S. prosecutors had asked the judge to set bond at $1 million, an amount that Pendergest-Holt’s attorney, Dan Cogdell, called “outrageous.”

While agreeing it was a serious case, Milloy lowered the amount to $300,000 and ordered Pendergest-Holt, who appeared in court dressed in a dark pants suit and heels, to wear an electronic tracking device after her release.

The tall, slender brunette appeared grim for most of the hearing but occasionally turned in her chair to smile at her husband, equity fund manager Jim Holt.

FBI agents had arrested her at Stanford’s Houston-based headquarters and accused her of obstructing an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission into what the agency called “massive ongoing fraud” by Stanford Financial Group Chairman Allen Stanford and three of his companies.

The developments could signify that prosecutors are closing in on the Texas billionaire, who has dual U.S. and Antigua Barbuda citizenship and has been a prominent sponsor of cricket, golf, tennis and polo events.

Under questioning from Pendergest-Holt’s lawyer, FBI agent Vanessa Walther said there is no arrest warrant for Stanford and he is believed still to be in northern Virginia, where he was served court papers last week.

Meanwhile, Stanford’s assets are under the control of a court-appointed receiver -- Dallas attorney Ralph Janvey -- who must sort out dozens of claims by Stanford account holders who have seen their funds frozen indefinitely.

A Dallas judge is expected to rule on Monday on whether to extend a temporary restraining order that gives Janvey control of Stanford’s assets -- pegged by the company at $50 billion.

Pendergest-Holt’s criminal case also moves to U.S. District Court in Dallas, where the charges were filed, lawyers said.

However, the receiver thus far has identified only about $90 million in actual assets, the FBI’s Walther told the judge on Friday. That does not include a Credit Suisse account containing about $160 million that Pendergest-Holt had access to and signed over to the receiver shortly before her arrest.

“There are billions missing in this case,” said Justice Department attorney Paul Pelletier.

Meanwhile the Antigua and Barbuda’s Senate on Friday approved a government takeover of more than 250 acres of Stanford-owned land before Janvey moves to seize it. [ID:nN27350692]

Pendergest-Holt’s lawyer Cogdell said his client was innocent of the charges, and will “fight these accusations with every ounce of energy she has.”

“They set her up like a bowling pin,” Cogdell told reporters after the court hearing, “My suspicion is by Mr. Stanford and Davis.” He was referring to James Davis, Stanford’s one-time roommate at Baylor University who serves as the company’s chief financial officer.

The complaint against Pendergest-Holt indicates that Allen Stanford borrowed $1.6 billion from his company’s assets before they were put under the receiver’s control.

“I see a billionaire who has not been charged,” said Cogdell. “I see a semi-millionaire who has not been charged. I see a multi-thousandaire who is being charged. That’s just wrong.”

The FBI’s Walther said Pendergest-Holt’s salary in 2007 and 2008 was near $1 million, including bonuses.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Pendergest-Holt’s hometown paper, called her a “killer combination of beauty, brains and connections.” She is originally from Baldwyn, Mississippi, which is close to Tupelo, best-known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

After answering questions for several hours on Thursday, Pendergest-Holt was met in the office lobby by five FBI agents, who arrested her, Cogdell said.

Pendergest-Holt was “shaking for hours” afterward, Cogdell said.

For other stories on the Stanford case, please double-click [ID:nN1356805] Additional reporting by Eileen O’Grady, writing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Gary Hill