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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stanford lobbied for Cubans to play in tournament

Financier R. Allen Stanford, who is awaiting trial on charges he orchestrated a massive Ponzi scheme, spent a half-million dollars in a lobbying effort to gain U.S. approval for Cuba to participate in his international cricket tournament.

According to Stanford's lobbyists, the Treasury Department turned him down. Treasury refused to confirm that, saying it does not comment on specific cases.

Interviews and documents obtained by The Press show that Stanford, a huge cricket aficionado, lobbied the Treasury and State Departments to approve his plan to include Cuba in last year's Stanford Twenty-20 Caribbean Cricket Tournament held in Antigua.

Stanford, a Texas native who lived in the Caribbean for many years, pleaded not guilty in June to charges of swindling investors out of $7 billion as part of an investment scam.

"Cricket is to the Caribbean as football was to the state of Texas when I was growing up," Stanford wrote in a 2007 letter to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the trade embargo against Cuba.

For the sport of cricket to prosper, Stanford wrote, "we need to provide an environment for young, talented, up-and-coming players that will keep them motivated and interested in developing their careers."

He promised that the Cuban team and its players would receive any prizes on an in-kind basis, rather than in cash, "as we are mindful of the restrictions on any direct cash payments that possibly would be received by the government of Cuba."

Stanford pointed to Cuba's participation in the World Baseball Classic as a precedent. In 2006 the Bush administration reversed course and granted a special license required for Cuba to compete in the tournament, after Cuba promised to donate any winnings to victims of Hurricane Katrina. In Cuba, as in the U.S., baseball is huge but its bat-and-ball cousin cricket doesn't have much of a following.

Stanford, who has been knighted by the government of Antigua and Barbuda, signed the letter "Sir Allen Stanford."

Patsy Thomasson, who lobbied on behalf of the effort from the Washington office of the Ben Barnes Group, said U.S. permission was needed because of restrictions on Americans doing business with Cuba.

Thomasson said she knew the effort was a long shot.

"When somebody asked me to get involved with this, I thought this was never going to happen," recalled Thomasson, a former Clinton administration official. "I'm not a foreign policy guru, but I just know — I thought had there been a different administration it might have flown."

A lobbying report shows that Stanford's now-defunct company, Stanford Financial Group, paid the Ben Barnes Group of Austin, Texas, $500,000 over six months on "matters related to international cricket tournament" and for "economic development in the Caribbean, specifically the Virgin Islands." The firm is headed by former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes.

Kent Caperton, a partner with the firm who lobbied for Stanford, said the economic development component was aimed at fostering U.S. businesses investment in the Caribbean.

In December 2007, Stanford announced that the U.S. had blocked his request to allow Cuba to participate.

"We have been anxious to include the entire Caribbean in the Stanford Twenty-20 Cricket Tournament and I am extremely disappointed that Cuba will not be able to play," Stanford said at the time.

Recalled Caperton: "It was mostly reflective of the Bush administration's attitude toward Cuba. We never sensed anything other than that." The firm's relationship with Stanford ended this spring due to "Mr. Stanford's legal difficulties," Caperton said.

Trinidad and Tobago wound up winning the Stanford Twenty-20 tournament in February 2008. Then, in June, Stanford arrived in London to hype his upcoming $20 million winner-takes-all match in Antigua between England and his West Indies all-star team, the Stanford Superstars — which the Superstars went on to win that fall. Stanford, whose worth had been estimated at $2 billion by Forbes magazine, landed flamboyantly in England by helicopter, bringing millions of dollars in cash.

"This has a more charitable streak to it," he said. "I'm doing things with cricket in the Caribbean that I would not ever do in any other business, marketing or branding of the Stanford Financial name."

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