Stanford asks for new team to defend him

Jailed businessman R. Allen Stanford is changing lawyers again and wants to be tried someplace else.

Criminal defense lawyer Michael Essmyer said Monday that Stanford, 60, founder and chairman of Stanford Financial Group who faces 21 federal criminal charges, has asked for new representation.

Since the Securities and Exchange Commission first froze assets of Stanford and the company in February 2009, Stanford’s criminal counselors, at various times, have been lawyers with a Washington firm, a Houston civil lawyer, Houston criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, a court-appointed public defender and most recently Houston criminal defense lawyers Kent Schaffer and George “Mac” Secrest.

Stanford has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors allege he ran a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

Essmyer said Stanford, who is being detained without bail as a flight risk, has asked to be represented by Essmyer and Robert S. Bennett, a Houston-based consumer lawyer who does some criminal work. Essmyer said that if Senior U.S. District Judge David Hittner accepts the change of attorneys, he plans to ask that the trial be moved because the Houston jury pool may be tainted by publicity about the case.

He cited the case of ex-Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, whose appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court includes an argument that he should not have been tried in Houston because Enron’s collapse so deeply shook the Houston community.

In the Skilling case arguments before the high court earlier this month, the justices focused largely on the amount of time the Houston trial judge spent on jury selection and why he didn’t strike some potentially prejudiced people from the pool of jury prospects.

The court is not likely to decide the Skilling case for several months and could rule solely on the other issue in that case — whether the government properly prosecuted Skilling under a federal law that makes it a crime to deprive a business or government of “honest services.”

Hittner is the only Houston judge who granted a change of venue motion in an Enron case. That was in the case against Lea Fastow, an Enron employee and the wife of the chief financial officer. Hittner moved it to Brownsville for trial but Fastow entered into a plea bargain instead.

Schaffer said he and Secrest are happy to step aside for the lawyers Stanford now requests.

Essmyer said if the court approves the new counsel, they may add to the team in the future.

This possible changing of the legal guard for Stanford coincides with an expected attorney payday from Lloyd’s of London. The insurance company has fought paying criminal defense legal fees for Stanford and his codefendants since the day a former Stanford company official pleaded guilty to wrongdoing at the company.

The insurer said that plea triggered an agreement in its contract with the Stanford firms and directors and officers, and that they no longer are covered in criminal cases.

An appellate court recently ruled that Lloyd’s must pay now but can still take the question of its obligations to trial in Houston.

Richard Kuniansky, lawyer for Stanford codefendant Mark Kuhrt, said Monday that he will submit a $94,000 bill to Lloyd’s, and asked the court that he no longer be considered court-appointed and paid by taxpayers.

The trial for Stanford, Kuhrt and codefendants Laura Holt and Gilbert Lopez is scheduled for January 2011.

Some lawyers said Stanford, the only jailed defendant, may now ask that his case be tried sooner or that he be released. But Essmyer said he has no current plans to ask for an immediate trial. Since Hittner is known to run a fast docket, such a motion likely would mean Stanford’s case would be severed from those of his codefendants and he’d be tried quickly.


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