Senate panel presses SEC official on delays in Ponzi case

By Marcy Gordon
Associated Press / September 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Senators pressed the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief enforcement official yesterday to explain why the agency has yet to demote or fire staffers who waited 12 years to bring charges against a major Ponzi scheme.

The SEC inspector general found that the agency knew since 1997 that R. Allen Stanford was probably operating a Ponzi scheme. But it did not charge the billionaire until February 2009. The charges came a few months after the massive pyramid scheme of financier Bernard Madoff surfaced.

SEC enforcement officials discouraged cases that couldn’t be resolved quickly, the inspector general found.

Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, asked Robert Khuzami, the SEC’s enforcement director, why no one at the SEC has been fired or demoted for the excessive delay. Other senators on the panel also wanted an answer.

“We seem to have an instance in which one side of the agency was screaming that there was a fire, and the other side said that the fire was too hard to put out,’’ Dodd said.

Khuzami said the disciplinary process is under way.

That prompted Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, to say: “It’s been 13 years. Isn’t that enough of a chance?’’

Khuzami responded that the details of the SEC’s failure in the case only have been known since the inspector general’s report was issued in April. He also said the agency has since toughened its efforts to shut down financial misconduct.

He said the SEC is working to provide “maximum recovery’’ to investors hurt in Stanford’s alleged $7 billion fraud.

Inspector general David Kotz also found that the former head of enforcement in the SEC’s Fort Worth office, who helped quash investigations of Stanford, later represented the billionaire as a private lawyer. Kotz indicated at the hearing that he has referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

Kotz also said the official’s representing Stanford appeared to violate Texas’s rules for lawyers.

The official briefly represented Stanford in 2006 before being told by the SEC ethics office that it was improper for him to do so, Kotz testified.

Kotz said the reforms in the SEC’s enforcement and inspections operations that Khuzami outlined may not have yet taken hold at the lower levels of the agency.

Stanford has been in federal prison since his indictment in June 2009 on criminal charges that his international banking business was really a pyramid scheme. He is disputing the charges. He faces a life sentence if convicted.

Kotz’s office has also found that the agency bungled five investigations into Madoff’s business between June 1992 and December 2008.