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Exec in Stanford fraud case pleads not guilty

The chief investment officer of Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford's companies pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the federal government's probe of the troubled firm.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The chief investment officer of Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford's companies pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges stemming from the first indictment in the federal government's investigation of the troubled financial firm.

Laura Pendergest-Holt will remain free on bond after being indicted this week on one count of conspiring to obstruct a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the Houston-based Stanford Financial Group and a second count of obstructing the investigation.

Her trial was set for July 20. If convicted, she could be sentenced up to five years in prison for each count and fined up to $250,000.

Dan Cogdell, one of Pendergest-Holt's attorneys, said after Thursday's hearing that his client was innocent and her defense would be that "she's not guilty."

"She is about as appropriate and kind and decent a woman as there is," Cogdell said. "She's been defiled by the accusation."

Pendergest-Holt did not say anything to reporters as she stood next to her husband Jim Holt and held his hand. Prosecutors declined to comment after the hearing.

During her brief arraignment, Pendergest-Holt said very little. She will remain free on the $300,000 bond that had been issued after she was arrested and charged in February.

Earlier during the arraignment, Cogdell and Pendergest-Holt's other attorney, Chris Flood, asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy if she could stop being electronically monitored — one of the conditions of her bond. Pendergest-Holt is living in Baldwin, Mississippi, but her attorneys said she planned to move to North Carolina, where her husband would start a new job. Prosecutor Gregg Costa asked that the electronic monitoring remain.

Milloy did not rule on that issue, and asked attorneys to submit motions on it.

The SEC has accused Stanford and his top executives of conducting an $8 billion fraud by advising clients to buy certificates of deposit at the Antigua-based Stanford International Bank.

Massive scheme
In its lawsuit filed in February, the SEC said the bank advertised its CDs in a brochure touting a conservative investment philosophy. But instead, the Stanford bank's portfolio was "misappropriated by Defendant Allen Stanford and used by him to acquire private equity investments and real estate."

In an amended complaint, the SEC accused Stanford and his finance chief, James M. Davis, of conducting a "massive Ponzi scheme." In a Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme, early investors are paid returns from money put in by later investors.

Tuesday's indictment accuses Pendergest-Holt of lying to SEC investigators about knowing the true value of one of Stanford International Bank's largest portfolios, which was made up of $3.2 billion in investments in artificially valued real estate and at least $1.6 billion in undocumented loans to "Executive A."

"Executive A" refers to Stanford, a person familiar with the case has previously told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Cogdell said Pendergest-Holt did not know anything about the portfolio and called the decision by Stanford officials to have her speak with the SEC on this "dumber than a bucket of hair."

"I'm not here to say she was set up. I'm here to say she's innocent," Cogdell said.

The indictment also accuses Pendergest-Holt of failing to tell the SEC during a Feb. 10 interview that she had met with Stanford officials in Miami in order to prepare for her SEC meeting.

The indictment also alleges that on Feb. 12, after her false testimony to the SEC, Pendergest-Holt caused $4.3 million in Stanford bank funds to be wire-transferred to the firm's operating account in Houston.

Stanford has said he is innocent but that he expects to also be indicted.

Last month, Davis, Stanford's finance chief, promised to fully cooperate with federal investigators.