Day 7: Curious about what’s ahead

HOUSTON, Texas – It’s a dreary, rainy morning in downtown Houston, where R. Allen Stanford has his seventh day of trial.

Silly me, I left my umbrella in Tupelo, so I hope I’ll get a break in the clouds to allow me dry passage the few blocks away to the federal courthouse by 9:30 or earlier. Proceedings begin at 10 and wrap up at 6.

Judge David Hittner is quite the rock star in his 8th-floor courtroom.

Judges in state trials, like Lee County circuit, are involved with how things go and make important rulings of law, but in federal court, the judge can be very participative – asking questions directly of witnesses, talking to the jury, telling the lawyers this and that.

Hittner is quite the rock star, indeed.

Monday, he even made a joke as a former Stanford-Memphis research analyst explained to the jury about commodities, anything that comes out of the ground, like gold, coffee, etc.

“You mean like orange juice? Like ‘Trading Places?'” Hittner said to Mark Collinsworth, on the stand.

“Trading Places” took me a minute, then I remembered that crazy movie with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy when the story’s two old dudes take homeless Murphy in to become a commodities trader and fire Ackroyd. It’s all about manipulating the orange-juice futures, and that was the judge’s joke.

Collinsworth went into much detail about the Memphis office, out of which Stanford CFO James Davis and Chief Investment Officer Laura Pendergest-Holt operated much of the time. He said LPH could “bust” a lower-level investment decision any time. He also accused her of double-dipping by allocating Stanford money to her husband’s hedge fund, from which he made money and she collected a fee on the front end.

MC said he saw Stanford in Memphis twice, and that Davis was completely in charge of their activities, chiefly selling and managing accounts from Stanford International Bank Ltd. certificates of deposit. He said while he was “rotating” in and out of SIBL’s base in Antigua, which he described as a bit of a joke, he never saw any major insurance company reps, like Lloyds of London.

He also said Davis and Holt told the advisers/analysts never to speak publicly about their so-called Tier 2 investments, which were aggressively played in stocks and other arenas.

He said he began to have questions about the company’s finances in 2008 when Holt told him their real estate holdings were making big returns, even though MC knew the national real estate market was going into the tank. On cross-examination, Stanford’s atty Ali Fazel (who is very good, by the way), got MC to admit he knew little or nothing about the state of international real estate in which Stanford may have had investments.

MC started his testimony late Friday and was on the stand nearly all of Monday. His face got redder and redder as the time passed.

About 4 p.m. former Antiguan bank regulator Althea Crick took the stand. The government is calling all the witnesses at this stage of the trial, but Fazel is doing a very good job so far in turning their testimony to bolster his client’s defense that Davis was to blame for the financial intrigues, false reports and ultimate illegality for which Stanford is on trial.

Crick is a tough cookie. She said she didn’t take any guff from Stanford, when he basically told her to cooperate with him or else. She insists she said no repeatedly to his offer of upgrading airfare tickets to the U.K. “Always go first class,” she said he told her.

And she says she stood her ground across several years as Stanford and his political allies on Antigua sought to take over her banking-regulation office and get rid of her. Ultimately, she said the back-room intrigue was just more than she wanted to play and she quit to go into private practice.

Stanford’s no shrinking violet, if anybody thought that. Despite his attorneys’ claims back in December that he wasn’t competent to stand trial or help in his own defense because of a mental lapse while addicted to anti-depressants, Stanford looks fit and fully engaged in what’s going on. He closely watches witnesses, he reads documents, he comments to Fazel and others at the defense table. During breaks, he stands up and appears to be offering suggestions to his attorneys.

When Crick was asked to identify Stanford in the courtroom, he immediately stood up and brought himself to full 6-foot-plus height and looked directly at her.

Today, prosecutors will continue to ask Crick questions. She is very deliberate with her answers, and a few times Hittner has had to say, “Just yes or no. Let’s move along.”

Once the government’s done with her initially, the defense takes over and that could be a war. I expect Crick to hold up fine, but we’ll see.

This back-and-forth questioning is a bit like a ping-pong match. Govt. asks questions, defense asks questions, govt. rebuts, defense rebuts, govt. re-rebuts, defense re-rebuts, more and more. With MC yesterday, it almost made you pull your hair out, and in the end the back and forth got to be a little bit silly as everybody got tired.

When James Davis comes to the stand will depend on how long this Q&A tennis match goes with Crick.

We reporters on the back row hope it’s soon, like tomorrow.

Stay tuned… patsy