The plaintiffs, 64 citizens of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, the United States and Spain who claim combined losses of more than $83.5 million, say that when they made their investments in Stanford Financial CDs, they relied on “safety and soundness” letters issued by Willis asserting that Stanford International Bank and its products were protected by certain insurance policies and were highly liquid.
“In fact, the Stanford Financial CDs were not CDs at all, but unregistered, unregulated securities sold illegally from Stanford Financial’s home base in the United States,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint. “These investments had no insurance and were fraught with risk.”
The case is not the first to lay such accusations against Willis. In 2009, a class of between 1,200 and 5,000 Venezuelan clients sought $1.6 billion over claims they were allegedly lured into the scheme by the insurance brokers’ assurance that Stanford CDs were sound, insured investments. And in another suit that year, Mexican investors implicated Willis, claiming the defendants contributed to a fraud that cost them roughly $1 billion.
Stanford was sentenced in June 2012 to 110 years in prison after being convicted on charges he misappropriated billions of dollars in investor funds, including some $1.6 billion he allegedly moved to a personal account. His $7 billion Ponzi scheme was second only to Bernie Madoff’s record-setting scam.
From about August 2004 through 2008, Willis provided Stanford Financial with an undated form letter that said Willis was the insurance broker for Stanford International Bank and had placed directors and officers liability insurance and a bankers blanket bond with Lloyds of London, according to the current complaint.
The letters played a crucial role in Stanford’s fraud because Stanford Finanical was an offshore bank and thus not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Willis’ letters helped Stanford get around that obstacle by claiming the CDs “were even safer than U.S. Bank-issued CDs because of the unique insurance policies Willis had obtained,” the complaint says.
“The Willis letters were specifically designed to win investors’ trust and confidence in Stanford Financial’s fraudulent scheme,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint, noting that for investors with more than $1 million in their accounts, Stanford Financial advisors could get personally addressed letters from Willis.
“Willis’ message to potential investors was this: Trust us, you can invest with confidence and security in Stanford Financial CDs,” they add.
All of the plaintiffs in the current case made their purchases through Stanford Financial’s Miami office, which the complaint says accounted for more than $1 billion in CD sales.
Willis of Colorado Inc. filed the notice of removal of the class action on the grounds of diversity between plaintiffs and defendants, of the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 and that the Northern District of Texas has exclusive jurisdiction in Stanford receivership cases.
The notice of removal also claims that defendants Willis Group Holdings Public Limited Co. and Willis Ltd., which are based in Ireland and the United Kingdom, respectively, have been fraudulently joined in an effort to defeat diversity jurisdiction. It says that the plaintiffs’ claims are on letters issued only by the subsidiary Willis of Colorado and “no reasonable possibility” exists of the plaintiffs recovering damages from the other entities.
Counsel for both sides could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
The plaintiffs are represented by Luis Delgado and Christopher King of Homer & Bonner PA and Ervin Gonzalez of Colson Hicks Eidson PA.
Willis is represented by Edward Soto of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.
The case is Nuila de Gadala-Maria et al. v. Willis Group Holdings Public Limited Co., case number 1:13-cv-21989, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.