Firms seek protection in Stanford lawsuits

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear appeals by law firms and financial services companies that do not want investors who lost billions of dollars to convicted swindler Robert Allen Stanford to pursue class-action lawsuits against them.

“There’s clearly going to be a precedent established,” Baton Rouge attorney Phillip W. Preis, who represents scores of those investors in a class-action suit in 19th Judicial District Court, said in an interview after the announcement.

“The Supreme Court apparently believes that the scope of the duty of lawyers and financial services people that provide services to a Ponzi scheme, and indirectly establish the legitimacy of a Ponzi scheme … should be defined by the Supreme Court,” Preis added in an email. He said members of the nation’s highest court appear to view their future definition as “a very important issue in light of this (Stanford) case.”

Ponzi operators are criminals who steal most of their investors’ money while paying fake dividends or profits to early investors with money from later investors.

Stanford, 62, was convicted in Houston on federal fraud charges last year and is serving a prison term of 110 years. More than 20,000 Stanford investors in Louisiana, other states, and more than 100 other countries were defrauded of between $5 billion and $7 billion, according to federal prosecutors, the Securities Exchange Commission and a court-appointed receiver in Dallas.

About 1,000 investors in the Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Covington areas lost as much as $1 billion to Stanford, according to estimates by Preis and state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.

The court-appointed receiver, attorney Ralph Janvey, responsible for finding Stanford’s assets, has reported recovering only about $250 million. But he still was seeking additional assets located in other countries.

Stanford investors represented by Preis in the class-action suit in Baton Rouge are seeking compensation for their losses from both the Louisiana Office of Financial Institutions and the Pennsylvania financial services firm of SEI Investments Co.

Investors allege in that suit — certified last month by state District Judge R. Michael Caldwell as a class-action — that SEI failed an obligation to certify the underlying value of investments that routinely were reported as profitable prior to the SEC’s closure of all Stanford operations in February 2009.

Investors also allege that the Office of Financial Institutions failed to notify them that state regulators had concerns about the legitimacy of Stanford’s operations.

Attorneys for SEI and OFI repeatedly have denied those allegations.

David Latham, an attorney for OFI, added in court records: “The role of the OFI is to regulate, not to ensure that those who invest in companies subject to OFI regulation will never lose money as a result of criminal actions.”

SEI is one of several financial services firms and law firms around the nation that are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that class-action suits by Stanford investors are not prohibited by the federal Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act .

The 5th Circuit’s “decision to find SLUSA inapplicable … is indefensible,” J. Gordon Cooney Jr. and other SEI attorneys told the high-court justices in an appeal SEI joined with other affected firms.

In the Baton Rouge suit against SEI and OFI, class-action certification enables as many as 1,000 additional Stanford investors to add themselves as plaintiffs, if they wish.

SLUSA was born in a Republican-sponsored bill that was signed into law in 1998 by then-President Bill Clinton. Its authors described the legislation as an attempt to stop the filing of frivolous class-action suits against companies whose securities are traded on national stock exchanges.

But 5th Circuit Judges W. Eugene Davis, of Lafayette; Edward C. Prado, of San Antonio; and Thomas M. Reavley, of Houston, ruled in March that SLUSA “does not preclude the (Louisiana investors) from using state class actions to pursue their recovery” of money from SEI and OFI.

That 5th Circuit panel noted SLUSA prohibits such class-action suits in cases involving securities covered by SLUSA. Panelists said Stanford’s securities were only “tangentially related” to SLUSA-covered sales through national stock exchanges.

The 5th Circuit’s view on the issue is similar to that of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, court records show. But the decision conflicts with others in similar cases by the 2nd Circuit in New York City, 11th Circuit in Atlanta and 6th Circuit in Cincinnati.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal by SEI, several law firms and several other financial services companies “indicates that some of the justices may not agree with the 5th Circuit,” Preis said.

Through the Office of Solicitor General, the Obama administration had asked the Supreme Court not to consider the appeals of the financial services and law firms.