HOUSTON (Reuters) - The chief investment officer of disgraced former billionaire Allen Stanford’s defunct financial firm pleaded guilty on Thursday to lying to U.S. regulators in 2009 in an effort to delay their probe into a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.
Laura Pendergest-Holt, 38, admitted to a single count of obstruction of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation for her role in the scheme. She originally was charged in 2009 with 21 counts of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction.
“I knew I was delaying the SEC,” she said tearfully before U.S. District Judge David Hittner in Houston of her testimony before SEC lawyers without sharing details about the firm’s fraudulent portfolio she knew they wanted.
“Did you know what you were doing at the time?” Hittner demanded loudly.
“Yes, your honor,” Holt replied, her voice breaking.
The maximum penalty for the obstruction charge is five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and probation for three years.
However, the plea deal is structured so that Holt’s lawyers, prosecutors and Hittner agree up front to a sentence of three years followed by three years’ probation, attorneys told the judge. If all three parties agree, such structured plea deals negate the need for federal probation officers to conduct investigations and submit sentencing recommendations to the judge.
Hittner did not accept the plea deal up front on Thursday. He said he would consider it at her sentencing on September 13.
He noted that he had received “many” letters from victims of the fraud “directly aimed at this defendant.”
If Hittner rejects the deal, Holt can withdraw her plea and go to trial, or maintain it and receive whatever sentence the judge deems appropriate.
Stanford was convicted in March of bilking investors around the world by using bogus certificates of deposit from his offshore bank in Antigua. He was sentenced to 110 years in prison on June 14.
Hittner has rejected a structured plea deal before. In 2004, defense lawyers for Lea Fastow, wife of former Enron Corp finance chief Andrew Fastow, and prosecutors presented a plea deal on a single felony tax violation with a sentence of five months in prison and five months confined at home.
Hittner rejected the deal, Lea Fastow withdrew her plea and the judge scheduled a trial on her six original felony charges of conspiracy and filing false tax forms to help her husband’s ill-gotten income.
Prosecutors later wiped out those charges by filing a single misdemeanor tax charge. She pleaded guilty to that count and Hittner sentenced her to the maximum one-year prison term.
Reporting By Kristen Hays; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Von Ahn and Andre Grenon