Mr. Stanford Goes to Washington, Part One

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We know that Allen Stanford, the Texas financier accused of a multi-billion-dollar fraud yesterday, helped send several amenable members of Congress to soak up the sun in Antigua. But Stanford first got involved with Washington policy-making long before 2003, when the first reported congressional trips took place.

Our tale begins in the Clinton administration, when the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa helped jump-start a legislative push to crack down on international tax havens. At that time, Jonathan Winer, a senior State Department official under Clinton, was well aware of Stanford’s offshore activities.

“In the late ’90s, Stanford came to my attention … because he was reaching out to people in our government to say he was a good guy and we should be comfortable with him,” Winer, now a senior vice president at APCO Worldwide in Washington, told me.

“He hired people to reform Antigua’s banking system, which was overwhelmed by offshore banks and shell banks [but] he was also regulated by the entity governing the sector that he was spending money to organize in what was characterized as a clean-up. We thought that was a conflict and inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, as Time reported three years later, the attempt to tighten money laundering rules got pushback from … guess who? (emphasis mine)

Former Treasury officials say that among the most vociferous critics
were officials from Texas banks that, because of their proximity to the Mexican
border, finance many cross-border projects, and are believed to be a favorite
repository for Mexican fortunes whose owners sometimes don’t welcome scrutiny.
Among the most outspoken were representatives of the International Bank of
Commerce of Laredo, Laredo National Bank and Stanford Financial Group, a
Houston-based broker-dealer with offshore banks in Antigua.

Stuart Eizenstat, a deputy Treasury Secretary at that time, told me that “the Texas bankers were leading the charge against” the anti-money laundering effort.

What was their biggest gripe? The Clinton team’s insistence on strong “know your customer” rules that would require offshore banks to verify “the identity of [their] own customer, what his background was, whether he was in a legitimate business, where his funds came from,” Eizenstat explained.

The Stanford Financial Group hired its first Washington lobbyists in 1999, at the time the anti-money laundering drive was gathering steam. And the company quickly learned how to cultivate pull in the Capitol — between July 2000 and July 2001, Stanford and his employees doled out $448,000 in “soft money” contributions to senior lawmakers in both parties, according to a report by watchdog group Public Citizen.

Among the lawmakers benefiting from Stanford’s largesse was Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm (R-TX), who let a House-passed money laundering bill die a quiet death in his panel in the last months of the Clinton administration.

According to Public Citizen’s report, “Gramm later publicly boasted to a group of bankers that ‘I killed the administration’s anti-money-laundering legislation.'” But Stanford’s attention was by no means limited to Republicans, who happened to control the Senate at the time. Stanford made a splash at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, a tale that we’ll pick up in Part Two of Mr. Stanford Goes to Washington

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