Congress

N.Y. congressman sought Chavez's help for disgraced banker Stanford

Three years before Allen Stanford's worldwide banking network collapsed, he called on a key member of the Caribbean Caucus to help him settle a crisis.

The president of his bank in Venezuela had turned on Stanford after being accused of stealing from the company, filing a lawsuit and publicly questioning whether Stanford was orchestrating a fraud.

Enraged at his former executive, Stanford placed a call in March 2006 to Democratic House member Gregory Meeks with a rare request: Go to President Hugo Chávez and seek a criminal investigation of Gonzalo Tirado.

Meeks, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, agreed to carry the message, according to two former U.S. federal agents working for Stanford who were listening to the call on speakerphone.

The politician would travel to Venezuela a month later for a series of meetings with Chávez and other leaders. A year after that visit, Venezuelan prosecutors indicted Tirado on charges of swindling and tax-evasion.

Meeks' trip to Venezuela was billed as a mission to express gratitude to Chávez and other leaders for a program that provided heating oil to Americans in the Northeast, press reports state. There was no mention of any discussion about Stanford, whose Venezuelan bank was one of the most successful in his business network.

Meeks did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails asking for more information about the trip.

The New York lawmaker's relationship with Stanford dates to at least 2003, when he joined other representatives on a trip funded by Stanford to Antigua. Meeks was an active member of the Caribbean Caucus, a group of lawmakers close to Stanford.

Over the next four years, Meeks took five more trips -- several with his wife to luxury resorts in the Caribbean -- paid for by a nonprofit funded by Stanford.

In 2008, he received $12,100 in contributions from Stanford and his employees.

Meredith McGeehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said Meeks' ties to Stanford should be reviewed by the Office of Congressional Ethics, especially if the congressman interceded on behalf of a donor with the leader of a foreign country.

``It certainly raises questions about the motivation,'' she said.

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