ST. JOHN‘S, Antigua (Reuters) - Hundreds of people lined up to withdraw money from banks in Antigua and Caracas affiliated with Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, a day after the tycoon was charged with an $8 billion fraud.
The whereabouts of the brash, 58-year-old financier were unknown. CNBC television said he tried to hire a private jet to fly from Houston, the site of his U.S. headquarters, to Antigua, but the jet lessor refused to accept his credit card.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has accused Stanford of operating a fraud centered on the sale of certificates of deposit from his Antiguan affiliate, Stanford International Bank Ltd (SIB).
The scheme has drawn comparisons with the alleged $50 billion fraud by Wall Street veteran Bernard Madoff.
In the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, where Stanford is the biggest private employer, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer said the charges against him could have “catastrophic” consequences but urged the public not to panic.
Two police officers stood watch at the Bank of Antigua as at least 600 people stood in a line stretching around a street corner, despite assurances from regional monetary authorities that the bank had sufficient reserves.
“I‘m worried and I’d like to get my money out,” said Andrea Lamar, 28, who joined the line with a friend on a street popular with tourists in the state capital, St. John‘s.
Bank of Antigua, with three branches in Antigua and Barbuda, is part of Stanford’s sprawling global business interests but is separate from SIB, the offshore affiliate at the heart of fraud charges lodged by U.S. regulators.
The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank posted a statement at Bank of Antigua saying the bank had sufficient reserves.
“If individuals persist in rushing to the bank in a panic, they will precipitate the very situation that we are all trying to avoid,” the statement said.
A similar scene played out in Caracas, where hundreds lined up to pull their money out of a Stanford bank.
“Stanford Bank Venezuela is a healthy bank without any type of problem,” said Edgar Hernandez Behrens, who heads Venezuela’s banking regulator.
A Venezuelan official estimated that people in that country have invested about $2.5 billion in Stanford.
In a civil complaint, the SEC said SIB sold $8 billion in certificates of deposit “by promising high return rates that exceed those available through true certificates of deposits offered by traditional banks.”
Stanford Group claims to oversee $50 billion in assets.
The SEC said Stanford failed to respond to subpoenas seeking testimony and did not produce ”a single document.
Last week, a Stanford Group spokesman denied initial reports that regulators were probing its business. Since Tuesday, company officials have been referring requests for comment to the SEC.
There were no signs of imminent criminal charges against Stanford, whose personal fortune was estimated by Forbes Magazine last year at $2.2 billion.
A federal judge on Tuesday appointed a receiver “to take possession and control of defendants’ assets for the protection of defendants’ victims.”
‘NOT DOING ANYTHING’
All was quiet on Wednesday outside Stanford’s Houston office, a day after a raid by federal agents. A man who answered the phone at Stanford’s Boston offices but declined to give his name said, “The office is open but we are not doing anything.”
A Colombian affiliate of Stanford halted its activities on that country’s stock exchange.
“We had to take a decision to protect investors and, naturally, to guarantee stability in the market,” Alvaro Camaro, the bank’s local director, told Reuters.
Stanford, who holds dual U.S.-Antiguan citizenship, has donated millions of dollars to U.S. politicians and secured endorsements from sports stars, including golfer Vijay Singh and soccer player Michael Owen.
Public figures on Wednesday scrambled to pull back from any relationship with Stanford, whose assets have been frozen.
British brokerage and investment house Blue Oak Capital said it had canceled a deal to distribute research from Stanford Washington Research Group.
“The whole thing was a complete waste of our time, I don’t think we ever got any orders as a result of it,” said Blue Oak Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Evans.
Former Swiss President Adolf Ogi said he would resign from the board of Stanford Financial Group. “I don’t want to be associated with this sort of news,” he said.
A leading figure in British cricket described the England and Wales Cricket Board’s association with Stanford as a “fiasco.” [ID:nLI150905] Stanford had become famous in the cricket world for a $20 million game in November between England and his own team of West Indian players.
Stanford lived for more than 20 years in the reef-girded island of Antigua, only 9 miles wide and 12 miles long with a population of just 70,000.
He owns the country’s largest newspaper, heads a local commercial bank, and is the first American to receive a knighthood from its government. He has homes sprinkled across the region, from Antigua to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami.
Some in the line at Bank of Antigua expressed hope that Stanford would evade arrest and keep his Antiguan investments.
“The charges come from America. They shouldn’t apply here,” said Sylvan Roberts, 43. “He’s innocent until proven guilty.”
Reporting by Jason Szep in St. John's; additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Ana Isabel Martinez and Saul Hudson in Caracas, Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston, Anna Driver in Houston, Helen Popper and Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota, Martin de Sa'Pinto and Emma Thomasson in Zurich and Mitch Phillips and Joel Dimmock in London; Writing by Scott Malone; editing by John Wallace