HOUSTON—A disgraced billionaire strode confidently into a federal courtroom Monday where a judge began questioning potential jurors in the trial of R. Allen Stanford.
Stanford stands accused of conspiracy, money laundering and wire and mail fraud in a 14-count indictment stemming from what prosecutors allege was an international Ponzi scheme bilking investors out of more than $7 billion.
His long-delayed trial is Houston’s biggest white collar fraud case since the collapse of Enron. Stanford has proclaimed his innocence.
“Thank you for coming,” Stanford said as he was introduced to the potential jurors. He was dressed in an open-collared dress shirt and a grey suit that matched his graying hair.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner, an often bombastic jurist renowned for keeping trials on a tight schedule, showed the jury pool a chess timer. He vowed to strictly time attorneys for both sides during a trial that’s expected to last about six weeks.
“Once they’re out of time, they sit down,” Hittner said, telling the jurors they would find the case both interesting and challenging.
A pool of 80 potential jurors spent the day answering the judge’s questions, which often focused on their investments and what sources of news they saw, heard or read. The first juror questioned, by coincidence, worked as a banker. A number of others indicated they had backgrounds in accounting.
Almost all of them indicated on written questionnaires that they had heard or read something about the case. Most of them said they believed they could render a fair verdict.
Stanford ran an international finance empire based out of an office building across the street from The Galleria, living a lavish lifestyle and giving interviews on financial news networks. But prosecutors allege his business was a fraud, using new investors to pay off old investors who bought high interest certificates of deposit. He was indicted more than two years ago, but his trial has been delayed while he was treated in a prison hospital for an addiction to an anti-anxiety drug.
In contrast to his once lavish lifestyle, incarceration has not been kind to Stanford. He suffered a head injury during a jail house fight in September of 2009.
His current court-appointed lawyers maintain that brain damage from that injury left him unable to assist in his own defense, which ultimately will center around one question.
Hittner expects to seat a jury by the end of the day. Opening arguments are expected on Tuesday.