The Ethical and Regulatory Morass of the Stanford Scandal

I didn’t start out looking for trouble.

But like the camera shots in a Sergio Leone western, every time the camera pulls back for perspective in the Stanford Investment Bank story, the plot changes.

But let’s begin at the beginning. You of course know Madoff–the man with the minus touch.

Now we have "Sir" Allen Stanford–let’s call him mini-Madoff. He’s head of the Stanford International Bank (SIB), now accused by the SEC of bilking about $1.8 billion through, what else, a Ponzi scheme. Based in Antigua, operated out of Mississippi and Texas, a very private management team.

SIB had an outside lawyer from the prestigious firm Proskauer, Rose. His name is Thomas Sjoblum. On February 10, in the SEC offices in Fort Worth, Texas, Mr. Sjoblum accompanied his client, SIB’s Chief Investment Officer Laura Pendergest-Holt, to a 4-hour deposition by her.

The next day, Mr. Sjoblum told the SIB folks he was resigning from the case.

Musta been one helluva testimony Ms. Pendergest-Holt gave, eh? So it would sound.

In a blackberry email to an SEC lawyer two days later, Sjoblum clarified:

"I disaffirm all prior oral and written representations made by me and my associates … to the SEC staff regarding Stanford Financial Group and its affiliates.”

For me, it all started with that funny word–“disaffirm.” In a blogpost on February 20 I said “disaffirm” was a tortured linguistic construct aimed at putting distance between telling the truth and technically not lying.

But then the real fun started. Pull the camera back a few feet.

I then separately heard from two lawyers for whom I have very high regard, suggesting I had been too hard on Sjoblom. They suggested Sjoblom was a whistle blower whose actions were principled, difficult and courageous.

They were not alone. The blog AmLaw Daily had written the day before:

…Sjoblom…sniffed out the fraud, withdrew his representation, and told federal investigators he essentially took back everything he had told to them in recent weeks…

Am Law Daily contacted a number of legal ethics experts to discuss Sjoblom’s decision to come clean about a client’s alleged frauds–especially given the possibility that in doing so, he disclosed confidential client information to the government…

Experts said Sjoblom did precisely the right thing–and, more importantly, that the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act likely made his decision much easier than it otherwise might have been.

"He [Sjoblom] did the right thing here," says Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at New York University School of Law.

I started looking for crow to eat. Until, that is, I read the Memphis Daily News account of what actually happened at that February 10 SEC deposition.

By the SEC’s own notes, Sjoblom came out swinging—asking if the SEC had yet referred the case to Justice, arguing that the SEC didn’t have geographic jurisdiction, arguing that the (allegedly) bogus CDs Stanford sold were not “securities” under the relevant legal definition.

Huh?

Suddenly the aspiring Hollywood screenwriter in my head switched stereotypes: this was not the plot for the courageous whistle blower movie. This was the script for the B "mob lawyer" movie. Could he really have had a Saul on the road to Damascus conversion in one afternoon?

So–what happened in that room? Did Ms. Pendergest-Holt really drop a bombshell that blindsided Sjoblom? Or did Sjoblom do a Claude Raines (“I am shocked, shocked! to discover my client has lied to me for years about billions of dollars!”)? Incidentally, Ms. Pendergest-Holt was arrested by the FBI a few days later.

Let’s pull the camera way back.

Attorney Sjoblom is an ex-assistant chief litigation counsel in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. On February 10 he aggressively explores defenses for SIB just before Pendergest-Holt comes on and says things that get her arrested. The next day he resigns.

The obvious question becomes, ‘What did Sjoblom know, and when did he know it?’ Of course I don’t know, but let’s consider what Sjoblom might have known:

  1. In 2003, a whistle blower case against Stanford was brought in front of the NASD (FINRA’s predecessor).
  2. In fact, according to Henry Blodget, "at least five former Stanford employees told the SEC they thought Stanford was running a Ponzi scheme, from 2003 on."
  3. A January 2008 lawsuit was filed against Stanford alleging endemic lack of compliance.
  4. A Venezuelan analyst wrote a report called Duck Tales in January 2009 which did for Stanford what Markopolis did for Madoff–blew the conceptual lid off.
  5. But the nail in the "shocked, shocked!" coffin is in the FBI arrest claim for Stanford’s Pendergest-Holt:

..the complaint alleges there were stormy preparation sessions for Pendergest-Holt in January and February “during which the bank’s shaky asset base became apparent to a wider circle of officials and to the lawyer — ‘Attorney A’ — who later quit.”

Um, who might ‘Attorney A’ be? Whoever it was, he knew something was up back in January.

So–just when did Sjoblom "sniff out the fraud?" The day after he heard testimony in Dallas? Or way before?

If he knew anything in advance–then why the aggressive denial-of-jurisdiction rant at the outset of the hearing? How much charade does a lawyer have to go through before he can speak some truth? I know legal ethics is much concerned with maintaining client confidences. But how much pretzel-twisting is required to serve that particular god?

The legal experts said Sjoblom did “exactly the right thing.” They also say that Sarbanes-Oxley made it far easier for lawyers to reveal confidences in certain situations. Let’s assume both statements are true. How horrible it must have been pre-Sarbanes–how many would-be whistle-blowing lawyers went to the grave mute?

How much in-your-face evidence of massive fraud does it take before a lawyer can say "my client is a crook and a liar" in a legally acceptable manner?

May I suggest the right answer should be–"less than this."

If this was a praiseworthy, ethical act consistent with the highest standards of the law, then something is very wrong–either with a lawyer, with legal ethics, or with the law itself. The law owes society more than citing last-minute tortured "disaffirmations" in the face of egregious criminal wrongdoing as examples of ethical behavior.

Note: It’s possible that Professor Gillers was not aware of all this background when he called Sjoblom’s actions "exactly the right thing." For all I know, given the background, he might even agree with me. I’d welcome his perspective here, and I’d welcome any correction from anyone about matters of law or fact.

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