Allen Stanford: a sorry tale of greed and shame

It was like a scene from Life of Brian. Allen Stanford stood on the table, like the messiah he thought he was, raised his arms and hushed his disciples – the Stanford Superstars, who had just trounced England and pocketed a million dollars a man – and other invited guests. ‘There’s been a lot of negativity and bullshit about this week,’ he said (and here you have to imagine hearing it in a Texan drawl). ‘But I am here to tell you that we’re going to carry on kicking some ass!’ He got down from the table and walked out, to wild applause.

It was his apotheosis. Here he was, mingling with sporting stars and worshipped by them because he had made them rich overnight. They were wearing his shirts, they had been playing on his ground and they listened to him adoringly. He had a personal cameraman in tow, recording his every move for posterity. The eponymous event had been watched around the world, although the viewing figures of hundreds of millions were, like much to do with Stanford, grossly exaggerated. Front page, back page, he was the talk of the town.

Three days ago, the US Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of a ‘massive ongoing fraud’ of ‘shocking magnitude’. The US Marshals Service in Houston, Texas, sent a 15-man task force into Stanford’s offices to secure files and computers. Alfredo Perez, the Marshals’ spokesman, announced a very different kind of departure for Stanford than the rapturous one he enjoyed in Antigua in November. ‘Once everybody leaves, the offices will be locked down,’ Perez said. Last man out turn off the lights. As queues of depositors appeared yesterday outside the Bank of Antigua and the Stanford International Bank, both situated in a conclave around the airport that is – or was – entirely owned by Stanford, the first reaction was one of concern for the many who will be affected and, especially, the future of this tiny island, the fate of which is tied up in no small measure with him. Deposits in Antiguan banks are not protected, and do not expect this small, impoverished country to be able to fund a Gordon Brown-style bailout.  Stanford is – or was – its largest private employer here, with interests in gambling, tourism, banking and publishing. Unemployment is high and sure to rise.

There may be trouble for some of the cricketers, too, as stories spread that one of the ‘legends’ employed by Stanford had reinvested with him, as had one of those he had made a millionaire overnight. At least Stanford’s fall from grace may be good news for Baldwin Spencer, the embattled prime minister, who has an election to win and who has clashed with Stanford in the past, calling him a modern-day colonialist. The fiasco of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium [when the Test against England was abandoned on 13 February, after ten balls and 14 minutes, because conditions were unfit for play] can be forgotten now.

What should not be forgotten quickly or easily is the embarrassment suffered by those who run English cricket and, by extension, the embarrassment for the English game. It is not good enough to say in defence of these decisions, as Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, has done, that the contract was signed with ‘the best of intentions’. At some stage a judgement must be made on the consequences of actions, not just the rationale behind them. Andrew Strauss has not enforced the follow-on in the third Test [against West Indies] for the best of reasons, but he will judged by whether or not England win.

Nor is it good enough for the ECB to distance itself from the alleged fraud by saying that ‘we haven’t promoted his products’. What exactly did the chairman and David Collier, the chief executive, think England were doing in Antigua in November? They must have been blinded by the reflection from the plastic box stuffed with the cash that Stanford took to Lord’s if they could not see that the whole exercise was about promoting the Stanford name and, by extension, the Stanford business. Stanford’s products and Stanford’s name are one and the same. The ECB endorsed his financial ‘expertise’, as did, unwittingly, the England team.

Nor is it good enough to say, as Nigel Hilliard, the Essex chairman, has this week, that due diligence was carried out in the same way as it would be with any other potential sponsor, ie, on Stanford’s ability to pay. Before, and shortly after, the ECB signed the deal with Stanford there was enough in the public domain to raise serious concerns about his distant past and his more recent activities. Years ago, the US Treasury Department warned about the lax regulation of Antigua’s offshore banks and their links to money laundering. Concerns were raised with Collier at a private dinner midsummer and by the time the Stanford week came around there was enough information to make the antennae of even the most naïve sportswriter twitch.

But money can dull the senses. The behaviour of those infatuated by Stanford’s riches was, frankly, the worst aspect of the whole thing: from the ECB officials, who fawned over him when he descended the steps of his helicopter at Lord’s, to the former greats, who knelt down, licked and polished his boots at every opportunity, to the players’ representatives, who did their best to catch the wave of excess.

Take this little sequence from the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA). Initially it was keen not to miss out on all this largesse and ‘congratulated ECB executives for the opportunities it [Stanford] presents for the England players and for the wider interests of cricket’. After the initial criticism of the Stanford week, the PCA’s representatives joined in, calling it a ‘garden party’ and rubbishing the facilities at an on-the-record press conference in Antigua.

Then, when these comments were accurately reported, the PCA sent Stanford a slithery e-mail seen by The Times, the beginning and end of which should suffice: ‘Dear Sir Alan,’ it began (and, lovely this, note the misspelling of his name), ‘…many thanks for your kind hospitality last night. It was a pleasure to meet you briefly and I do hope we will have another opportunity to meet before the end of the week. The game was a great spectacle and the warmth of your hospitality was hugely appreciated. The ugly tone of the reports I have read from the UK take these comments out of the context that they were made and I do hope you will accept my apology for any offence they may have caused.’ Ugh.

And the lessons for those running English cricket? When a game is played for money only, it is worthless, and enough people care about the England cricket team not to want to see them playing worthless fixtures. The England cricket team mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people and they do not like it when they see something valuable, something that represents them, reduced to a rich man’s plaything.

This column knows little about financial matters – which is presumably why we have business people, not cricket people, running the game – and so was probably blind to the signs that Clarke saw when he said, after announcing the five-year deal: ‘Stanford is a great legendary entrepreneur and he has the entrepreneur’s ability to spot an opportunity and seize it and take it forward.’ Usually, though, it pays to be wary when someone is offering exorbitant rates of interest and massive asset growth at a time when everything is heading south. If it looks too good to be true, it usually is.

It was Warren Buffett, another great and legendary financier, who said that when the tide goes out, you can see who has been swimming naked. The tide has gone out and it is Stanford’s ass now giving a great, whopping moonie to English cricket. It is not a pretty sight.