Just hours after federal agents charged banker Allen Stanford with fleecing investors of $7 billion, the disgraced financier received a message from one of Congress' most powerful members, Pete Sessions.
"I love you and believe in you,'' said the e-mail sent on Feb. 17. "If you want my ear/voice -- e-mail,'' it said, signed "Pete.''
The message from the chair of the Republican National Congressional Committee represents one of the many ties between members of Congress and the indicted banker that have caught the attention of federal agents.
The Justice Department is investigating millions of dollars Stanford and his staff contributed to lawmakers over the past decade to determine if the banker received special favors from politicians while building his spectacular offshore bank in Antigua.
Agents are examining campaign dollars, as well as lavish Caribbean trips funded by Stanford for politicians and their spouses, feting them with lobster dinners and caviar.
The money Stanford gave Sessions and other lawmakers was stolen from his clients while he carried out what prosecutors now say was one of the nation's largest Ponzi schemes.
Sessions, 54, a longtime House member from Dallas who met with Stanford during two trips to the Caribbean, did not respond to interview requests.
Supporters say the lawmaker, who received $44,375 from Stanford and his staff, was not assigned to any of the committees with oversight over Stanford's bank and brokerages.
His press secretary, Emily Davis, said she was unable to comment on the e-mail sent at 11:31 a.m. on the day Stanford was charged by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ``I haven't seen it, so I can't verify its authenticity at this time,'' she said.
But the message found on Stanford's computer servers and the contributions he made to Sessions and other lawmakers -- totaling $2.3 million -- are now part of the government's inquiry.
Records show Stanford also doled out $5 million on lobbying since 2001, setting up his own Washington firm last year with expensive furnishings and artwork -- the money plundered from his customers' accounts.
Over the years, he took on battles to protect his banking network while fending off regulators.
In 2001, he pressed successfully to kill a bill that would have exposed the flow of millions into his secretive offshore bank in Antigua.
The next year, he helped block legislation that would have drawn more government scrutiny to his bank.
While he was fighting reforms to financial secrecy and offshore banking laws, Stanford was hobnobbing with dozens of lawmakers.
Stanford hosted New York Congressman John Sweeney's wedding dinner at his five-star restaurant in Antigua in 2004 -- toasting the couple for photographers -- and staged a cocktail fundraiser for now-disgraced Ohio congressman Bob Ney at his bayfront Miami office.
``He legitimized himself by having himself vetted by powerful members of Congress,'' said Steven Riger, a former vice president at Stanford's Miami brokerage. ``It was all about the public's perception.''
Kent Schaffer, Stanford's court-appointed attorney, said his client never asked for special favors. ``Stanford gave contributions to politicians, but there was nothing criminal behind it,'' he said.
The federal investigation comes after months of criticism from victims' groups complaining that elected leaders failed to vet Stanford before accepting money from him the past 10 years. If they had, they would have discovered that the U.S. State Department in 1999 concluded that Stanford helped create a haven for money-laundering in Antigua.
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