From TALKING POINTS MEMO:
Intrigue. Deceit. And forbidden love on a sun-kissed tropical island — with billions of dollars on the line.
No, this isn’t a Danielle Steel bodice-ripper. Or Mark Sanford’s latest confession about crossing “the ultimate line”. Instead, it’s the story of the tangled, high-stakes relationship between Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) and accused Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford.
Back in February, Stanford was charged by the SEC with an $8 billion swindle. And Sessions, the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, had received over $44,000 from Stanford and his staff. In response, Sessions coldly denied through a spokeswoman that he even knew the disgraced banker at all.
We knew at the time that wasn’t true — and quickly published the pictures to prove it, which show Sessions and House colleagues like Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) hobnobbing with Stanford in Antigua, one of several lavish Caribbean trips the billionaire laid on for lawmakers in recent years.
A week or so later, Sessions himself acknowledged to the Dallas Morning News that he did know Stanford, though only as a public-spirited advocate for the Caribbean region where his banking operation was headquartered.
The paper reported that the relationship had first been sparked in 2004, when Sessions faced a tough re-election fight against Democrat Martin Frost. Stanford played the knight in shining armor, with his firm pouring over $35,000 into Sessions’s campaign coffers to help him pull it out. We also knew that two years later, Stanford had asked Sessions to become a member of the Stanford-backed “Caribbean Caucus” of lawmakers, almost all of whom, including Sessions, appear to have taken lavish trips to the region funded indirectly by the banker.
But here’s what we didn’t know until now. The Sessions-Stanford connection wasn’t just a one-time fling, that blazed in the heat of the Caribbean sun, then burned out in the cold hard light of the Washington daily grind. Sessions isn’t that type. Last night McClatchy published a heart-rending email, which it reports, without sourcing, was sent by Sessions to Stanford hours after the SEC filed charges against the banker.
In the email, sent on the morning of February 17, Sessions promised to stand by his controversial ally. “I love you and believe in you,” he wrote. “If you want my ear/voice — e-mail.” He signed the missive, “Pete.” Just three days later, Bloomberg would report the denial from Sessions’s office that the two men knew each other.
The email is among documents being looked at by Justice Department investigators, who are reportedly probing Stanford’s ties to lawmakers.
From The Miami Herald :
Just hours after federal agents charged banker Allen Stanford with fleecing investors of $7 billion, the disgraced financier received a message from one of Congress’ most powerful members, Pete Sessions.
“I love you and believe in you,” said the e-mail sent on Feb. 17. “If you want my ear/voice — e-mail,” it said, signed “Pete.”
The Justice Department is investigating millions of dollars Stanford and his staff contributed to lawmakers over the past decade to determine if the banker received special favors from politicians while building his spectacular offshore bank in Antigua, The Miami Herald has learned.
Agents are examining campaign dollars, as well as lavish Caribbean trips funded by Stanford for politicians and their spouses, feting them with lobster dinners and caviar.
The money Stanford gave Sessions and other lawmakers was stolen from his clients while he carried out what prosecutors now say was one of the nation’s largest Ponzi schemes.
Records show Stanford also doled out $5 million on lobbying since 2001, setting up his own Washington firm last year with expensive furnishings and artwork — the money plundered from his customers’ accounts.
Over the years, he took on battles to protect his banking network while fending off regulators.
In 2001, he pressed successfully to kill a bill that would have exposed the flow of millions into his secretive offshore bank in Antigua.
The next year, he helped block legislation that would have drawn more government scrutiny to his bank.
While he was fighting reforms to financial secrecy and offshore banking laws, Stanford was hobnobbing with dozens of lawmakers.
Stanford hosted New York Congressman John Sweeney’s wedding dinner at his five-star restaurant in Antigua in 2004 — toasting the couple for photographers — and staged a cocktail fundraiser for now-disgraced Ohio congressman Bob Ney at his bayfront Miami office.
The federal investigation comes after months of criticism from victims’ groups complaining that elected leaders failed to vet Stanford before accepting money from him the past 10 years. If they had, they would have discovered that the U.S. State Department in 1999 concluded that Stanford helped create a haven for money-laundering in Antigua.
Stanford’s foray into the Washington power game began in 2001, shortly after he was allowed to open a controversial trust office in Miami.
The special office was a boon to Stanford’s bank, generating millions in the sale of certificates of deposit — the money stuffed in pouches and sent on jets to his banking headquarters in Antigua.
But when a bill was created to compel offshore bankers to reveal the sources of money flowing into their banks, Stanford jumped into the fight to kill it.
The measure would have forced Stanford — who was moving millions illegally through his Miami trust office — to open his books to federal regulators.
To combat the bill, Stanford launched a strategy he would use for the next eight years: He gave money to the party in power, including $40,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $100,000 to the inaugural committee of George W. Bush, records show.
By summer of 2001, the bill was dead.
In the ensuing years, Stanford’s banking empire flourished, with the Miami office generating hundreds of millions of dollars, records show.
In late 2001, Stanford confronted another threat: A bill allowing state and federal regulators to share details about fraud cases — which would have brought Stanford’s brokerages under closer scrutiny — landed in the Senate Banking Committee.
Though the Senate was now controlled by Democrats, Stanford was prepared: He had given $500,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2002 — his largest-ever contribution.
“I told him that the Democrats were going to take over, and he needed to make friends with them,” recalled his lobbyist Ben Barnes, once Texas’ lieutenant governor.
The bill, which sparked sweeping opposition from brokerages and insurers, never made it to a vote.
In 2003, investors began questioning the legitimacy of his certificates of deposit, which generated higher returns than major U.S. banks, and articles began appearing in news magazines about money-laundering in Antigua.
In addition, Stanford was drawing the scrutiny of the SEC, which was demanding to know where his bank was investing customers’ money.
In the ensuing years, Stanford would play a dual role of staving off regulators — paying $200,000 in bribes to Antiguan banking chief Leroy King — while forging ties with members of Congress, court records show.
Those connections deepened when Stanford started hosting a series of congressional visits to Antigua.
It began in 2003, when lawmakers including Sessions, Ney, Sweeney, Gregory Meeks, Donald Payne, Max Sandlin and Phil Crane arrived in Antigua on a mission to “promote relations” with the Caribbean nation.
The cost of the January trip — including nights in luxury hotels and two Stanford jets for travel — came to $39,500, records show.
For four days, they gathered for talks on business in the Caribbean, trading jokes with Prime Minister Lester Bird and touring the island.
In time, the group of lawmakers, which became known as the “Caribbean Caucus,” would take 11 more trips — the costs picked up by the Inter-American Economic Council, a nonprofit funded by Stanford.
During a 2004 Antiguan trip, Sweeney and his 34-year-old girlfriend were married, with Stanford hosting the ceremony and reception for the New York Republican at the famed Pavilion Restaurant.
Stanford was not only funding the trips — the money looted from his customers — but also staging fundraisers.
He held an event at his office on the 21st floor of the Miami Center for Ohio house member Ney, who was later sentenced to 30 months in prison after admitting to accepting gifts and money from clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
He rallied his brokers when Sessions was in a tight race with Democrat Martin Frost in Texas in 2004.
While he was forging ties in Washington, he was getting into deeper trouble with the SEC. By 2006, the agency had sent two confidential letters to the Antiguan government demanding information about the solvency of Stanford’s bank, records show.
Both times, Stanford was aided by lead regulator King, who managed to keep the bank’s finances secret while accepting thousands in bribes from Stanford — their pledge sealed in a blood oath in Stanford’s airplane hangar in Antigua, according to court records and interviews.
With pressure mounting from the SEC, Stanford increased his lobbying in Washington.
In 2008, he started his own lobby firm on 14th Street and New York Avenue, spending $2.2 million — more than he spent the previous four years combined, records show.
On Feb. 17, armed with court orders, federal agents swarmed into his offices across the country, shutting down his operations and declaring that Stanford was running a massive fraud.
In his Houston headquarters, agents found reams of company documents, electronic records and e-mails received by Stanford in his final days, including the message from Sessions.
As the scandal unfolded, members of the Caribbean Caucus began returning their contributions.
Nineteen lawmakers gave back a total of $87,800 to the court-appointed receiver as of August. Others, including Meeks, Sessions, Sandlin, Sweeney and Crane, said they turned some of the money over to charities.
In addition, Democratic House member Charlie Rangel returned $11,800 to charities, and Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson $45,000 to charities, half of which came from a fundraiser at Stanford’s Miami office in 2006.
As federal agents examine Stanford’s political contributions, victims’ groups have criticized lawmakers for failing to vet Stanford before accepting his donations and trips.
The State Department had singled out Stanford in a 1999 report for using his influence to weaken the Antiguan banking laws, creating “one of the most attractive financial centers in the Caribbean for money launderers.”