Billionaire Stanford's troubles cause a headache on Antigua

ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- On this tiny eastern Caribbean island, Texas billionaire Robert Allen Stanford looms large, like a tropical Donald Trump but without the comb-over. His holdings include a newspaper, two banks, two restaurants, a spectacular cricket stadium that bears his name, a cricket tournament that turns players into millionaires, and some of the best real estate in the nation.

But now the business empire that ''Sir Allen'' amassed using political influence and deep pockets is teetering, with the U.S. government accusing him in a civil complaint of engineering an $8 billion fraud. He is such a big player in Antigua that some fear that his mounting troubles could seriously damage the Antiguan economy.

Among those trying to calm the nervous two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda: the man who handed Stanford the keys to this paradise.

''Stanford has done a reasonable job for the people of this country, and you don't have nothing to be ashamed of,'' former Prime Minister Lester Bird said at a political rally Thursday night. ``If he's done something wrong, let the law take its course. But when we brought him here, he helped to develop this nation.''

Many in this country of 85,000 people remain on edge.

The man at the center of the scandal is a flamboyant tycoon who carefully controls his image and that of the companies making up his Stanford Financial Group. His empire is headquartered yards from V.C. Bird International Airport, and consists of a theme-park-like expanse dotted with manicured greens and pineapple-shaped date trees. Buildings bear his eagle insignia.

''He's one hell of a marketing guy. That is what Stanford is,'' said Winston Derrick, the owner of Observer Radio and The Daily Observer newspaper, which competes against Stanford's Antigua Sun. ``He's a sponsor of the Miami Heat. He's [a sponsor] on the PGA Tour. He's Antigua Sailing week. He's all over. If the guy was a politician, he would be some awesome politician.''

Instead, he wooed politicians here and in Washington. Elected officials, including President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., received contributions to their campaigns but later rejected the money.

On Tuesday, the globe-trotting Stanford, who likes private jets but prefers to drive himself around town when here, was charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission in a civil complaint with misleading customers about how their money was being invested. The case involves the sale of certificates of deposit from his Stanford International Bank Ltd., the offshore financial outfit that has attracted billions of dollars from wealthy clients, mostly in Latin America.

The news rocked this normally laid-back island. For three days, depositors made a run on the Bank of Antigua, forcing the governing Eastern Caribbean Central Bank to announce on Friday that it was seizing control because of ``an unusual and substantial withdrawal of funds by depositors from the bank.''

While the decision seemed to calm Antiguans for now, fears persisted that the freezing of Stanford's assets and the ensuing legal battle could paralyze his businesses here and leave thousands without jobs.

The island is already reeling from a downturn in tourism and double-digit unemployment. Others worry that the focus on Stanford could also invite tighter scrutiny by the Obama administration of Antigua's offshore banking.